How do you feel when you hear "God doesn't care about your self-esteem"?
TRUE OR FALSE? Most people haven’t matured past the age of 15 and so are still desperate to be invited to sit at “The Cool Kids’ Table” in the high school cafeteria.
Sadly, I fear that the statement is true more often than not. Fear of being misunderstood or rejected or isolated all have deep roots in the human psyche. We very much want to be noticed, approved of and included. These primal desires are often intensified by the cult of self-esteem that has erected so many altars throughout our cultural landscape in recent decades. (Ironically, very few people know that the concept of self-esteem is rooted in the bad science and shameless self-promotion of its principal proponent, John Vasconcellos.) So deeply ingrained is the cult of self-esteem among our young people, that I once caused a near stampede to the university counseling center by declaring from the pulpit: “God doesn’t care about your self-esteem. God wants to make you holy and give you perfect joy, so staring into your navel and marveling at how ‘special’ you are isn’t very interesting.”
That need to be liked, to be approved of, can hinder the integrity of our Christian witness. A case in point: Cardinal Dolan admitted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “We have gotten gun-shy … in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality.” But why?
Perhaps, it is because folks know that Catholics who are unambiguous regarding the Church’s perennial teaching on sexual morality won’t be welcome on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or The View (in other words, “The Cool Kids’ Table”). Worse, they fear that they might be mocked by Bill Maher (in his role as the high school bully) on whatever show he happens to be hosting this week. (Please understand that my purpose here is not to point fingers at others but to prompt each of us—including myself—to look in the mirror and then to examine our own conscience.)
I was once asked about a man I know who was about to be ordained a bishop. I praised him for his sanctity, integrity, erudition, zeal for souls and his work ethic. Above all, I praised him for this reason: “He doesn’t need to be liked.” In other words, he wouldn’t let concern for human approval or rejection govern his discipleship or ministry. That is a standard we all should aspire to.
What shall we do, with God’s grace, to cultivate the freedom to do what we ought, regardless of how the world might respond? St. Ignatius Loyola warned us with these words: “Nothing worthy of God can be done without earth being set in uproar and hell’s legions roused.”
In other words, there will always be natural and supernatural consequences in doing what is right. We need to prepare ourselves accordingly. A good place to start is with Ignatius’ program of fostering freedom and holy desires in his Spiritual Exercises, ably summarized here by Father John Hardon, S.J.
That fundamental reorientation of life fostered by the Spiritual Exercises can be supported by the daily praying of the Litany of Humility. The last few lines of the Litany are most challenging:
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
Dr. Raymond Richmond’s reflections on this Litany are worth noting:
1) We shouldn’t crave admiration as the source of our identity, but, rather, “… may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)
2) Jesus’ exhortation “Fear not” (Matthew 17:7) is a source of freedom.
3) Placing others first leads to true compassion, liberating us from diabolical self-obsession.
It’s still early in 2018. It is not too late to make another New Year’s Resolution. After a good examination of conscience and sacramental confession, let us pray: “From the desire to be liked, deliver us, O Lord!”
When I write next, I will begin a series on a why men and women are so unhappy, and what the wisdom of the Church can offer them. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
[You can hear Fr. McTeigue discuss this column with Morning Air’s John Harper, at Relevant Radio, here].