Be You, Do You
I notice signboards. One I saw today said, “Be You! Do You!”
This is the essential wisdom of modern, American culture distilled in four words, “Be you, Do you.” At first glance, it sounds cheerful, upbeat and vaguely liberating. What’s life all about? It’s about you being you, performing you. Don’t worry what others think. Don’t be circumscribed by given roles or expectations. BE YOU, gloriously, uniquely YOU.
But being you isn’t quite enough. You also have to “DO YOU,” that is do yourself in public, on-line, here and there and everywhere. This is, as I say, the sum total of modern, ethical wisdom, “Be yourself,” which Mark Twain once opined is the “worst possible advice you can give a man.”
There was a time when “be yourself” might have been a word of grace. It might have meant, “don’t try to be someone you aren’t” or as with Mr. Rogers, “I like you just the way you are.” But the grace has pretty much gone out of it. Note the imperative: “Be You! Do You!”
For Alan Noble, the author of You Are Not Your Own, all the emphasis on BE YOU! DO YOU! is what ails us. Here’s Noble,
“To be your own and belong to yourself means that the most fundamental truth about existence is that you are responsible for your existence and everything it entails. I am responsible for living a life of purpose, of defining my identity, of interpreting meaningful events, of choosing my own values, and electing where I belong . . .
“But the freedom of sovereign individualism comes at a great price. Once I am liberated from all social, moral, natural and religious values, I become responsible for the meaning of my own life . . . this burden manifests as a desperate need to justify our lives through identity crafting and expression. But because everyone else is also working frantically to craft and express their own identity, society becomes a space of vicious competition between individuals vying for attention, meaning and significance, not unlike the contrived drama of reality TV.”
BE YOU, DO YOU morphs readily into BE MORE, DO MORE. You must be engaged in the religion of constant self-improvement.
The upshot is a deep fatigue, weariness and chronic exhaustion. It’s tough to be on the hamster wheel of constant self-invention, self-creation and self-marketing. For Noble, “This is the fundamental lie of modernity: that we are our own.”
Christian understandings of what it means to be human are fundamentally different. We are not our own. We belong to an Other. Noble cites the Heidelberg Catechism’s famous first question,
“Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Noble goes further, “The basic idea of the modern world (I belong to myself alone) makes us ill.” Lots these days about mental health, the mental health crisis, the mental health crisis among teens. Could it be that the burden of self-creation, self-invention, self-promotion is un-doing us, making the most vulnerable among us sad or crazy?
I will return to Noble’s wise and provocative book in subsequent blogs, but with the sabbath at hand, I invite you to take this day off from the modern project of self-invention and self-curation. Let God be God. Let God be God for you. Rest in the assurance of God’s grace. “You are not your own” is good news, not bad news. You are not entirely on your own in this beautiful and tragic world. You belong, you belong to the Lord who loves you more than there are stars in the sky.