Has technology prompted us to forget what it means to be human?
Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, has written an interesting piece in The New Yorker about technology. Advances in technology, it appears, don’t automatically signal advances in humanity. He concludes noting that “The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests.” I was struck by the expression “our more complete selves.”
This past weekend a few hundred high school seniors came to Benedictine College to compete for the Presidential Scholarship. They are an impressive group. Faced with a tough day of essays and interviews, the advice that I often given is “just be yourself.” But it struck me, as I heard myself saying this, that “being ourselves” is one of the most monumental challenges imaginable. It is, in fact, the purpose of our lives, and how we give glory to God.
How many chances we have every day to be less than ourselves, or to surrender to the siren song of pseudo-selves, selling our identity, our birthright, for a plate of pop-culture! God’s first commandment, “be fruitful,” applies of course to our openness to offspring, but there is an even more fundamental openness that God is asking of us. We have to be open to be the people He envisions us to be. And what we have to trust, begging for and using every ounce of faith and hope we can, is that his plan for us, his will for us, is the path to our deepest happiness and fulfillment.
There are many crusades needed in our world today: to serve the poor, the marginalized, the unborn who are threatened. But one of the biggest crusades in our culture, I believe, is against unnecessary unhappiness. People wander our world as if they were in the first circle of the Inferno. T.S. Eliot describes them in “The Waste Land”: “Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” (lines 60-65) Look around. Look at the eyes of people on a crowded city street. Do you see fulfillment or drudgery?
So many people cannot be themselves because they have forgotten who they were meant to be, or they have given ear to the Tempter’s original ruse that makes us see God as a rival to our happiness and not the author and bestower of it. We traipse along a million paths to find ourselves outside of the truth of who we are, and wonder why we languish in alienation, depression and interior solitude. We leave the Father’s house in the name of freedom and sell ourselves out to pasture pigs. We may even get stuck in a rut and wallow there for decades.
Technology certainly will not help us, because it has only the will of its designers. A faster boat will not get you where you’re going any sooner if you don’t know where you’re going. It will merely dazzle you with the rush of speed. Our culture is going nowhere at a dazzling pace. And woe to us if we think that “just being ourselves” is a passive platitude. The verb "to be" is active. You may be a "has been," but never a "was been." "To be ourselves" is an active struggle to live out all of the potential God places within us at our creation, and which He sustains within us at every moment.
To be ourselves requires grace. To be ourselves requires knowing and living the mystery of the Word made Flesh, for, as Gaudium et Spes famously teaches, our own mystery is only made clear through and in Christ, who is the self of God. Only in Christ can we be our more complete selves.
“Just be yourself” is a challenge, a commandment, a call to action. It is no less than the universal call to holiness. To be everything we can be requires everything we have and more.
But that is what we were created for. For us, to glorify God is not to slog along as his ill-treated servant, but to feel his pleasure as his adopted son. And “the glory of God is the living human person,” said St. Irenaeus so many centuries ago. How very true. Be your true self today, and you will be the happiest and most fulfilled you. For when we are most truly ourselves, we most glorify God.