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Can “finding yourself” help in your life as a Christian?

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Is “personal development” an instrument that can help us advance in life? Is faith not enough for us to grow?

Regarding personal development, some of us are torn between skepticism and fascination. Is it an instrument that can help us advance in life? Is faith not enough for us to “develop”?

Finding yourself, inner healing … The enthusiasm for personal growth often lacks the ability to get to the heart of the issue. The philosopher Norbert-Mallet untangles this concept in the light of faith.

The purpose of a Christian life is to live in charity. Why should we search for personal realization?

As Jesus reminds us, in the Old Testament, the Law demands: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). But loving others cannot be done without properly loving yourself. The love of God is different for each person. The way in which He reaches each person is through respect for their personality, their history, and their needs. We are not spiritually cloned creatures, nor are we called to an identical relationship with God. Each person responds to his or her vocation according to his or her talents, like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Charles Borromeo with their intellectual talents, or St. Alphonsus de Liguori with his talent for governing.

Isn’t a union with God preferable to a search for well-being?

Union with God is the summum, the height, of personal development. We were created by Him to be united with Him with all of our being — body, emotions, intelligence, imagination, our will, etc. The risk is passing over what we are and the ways that we could contribute. Working on oneself—minimizing the dysfunctions of our personality, the defense systems blocking us—facilitates the work of the Lord in our lives. We can illustrate this with the personality of St. Peter: cranky and hot-tempered. He was not able to completely receive Christ’s message without leaving his impulsiveness behind.

However, curing our wounds will never rid us of our condition as sinners.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that the first effect of sin is that it impedes friendship with God. The second is a cacophony in our faculties (intelligence, will, sensitivity). They are still good, but they are not in harmony. The grace of God restores the friendship between God and the person, but it does not regulate the cacophony between a person’s faculties.

Our conversion consists of trying to get these faculties to work together. For that, we receive a grace of God that may disrupt our life, or, more frequently, help us put that virtuous talent into practice. Each one of us, according to our nature, has a dominant passion. We have a particular virtue to develop that can unify our humanity and prepare us to receive salvation. 

What does “development” mean for a Christian? How is that different from knowing yourself?

The term “personal development” refers to the development of our own abilities. The term “knowing yourself” comes from Antiquity. The Socratic “Know thyself” was taken up by Plato, and then Aristotle, and later, with slightly different connotations, by the Church Fathers. This knowledge is at the heart of Greek and Christian traditions: the better I know myself, the better I can inscribe my personal life within a more elevated vocation in order to develop all the dimensions of my person, including salvation. We start with who we are in order to fully realize ourselves in God. A tree without roots falls over with the first storm. 

So is personal development a modern invention?

While personal development is a contemporary concept, the focus of knowing oneself and the domination of our passions is ancient. Plato discusses this in the Dialogues. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes an “ethics of character.” This was commented on by St. Thomas Aquinas. St. John Cassian, a Desert Father, advised his monks to “discover the passion that most dominates, the one that produces an immediate reaction in you and that keeps you from reflection and being human. Once you have found it, apply yourself to converting it and do so that it is directed toward Christ. Once you have converted this dominant passion, observe if there is any other passion that brings out the same problem and make an effort to convert this passion as well.” St. John Cassian does not invite all the monks to pray in the same way. Instead, he calls on each one to convert the part of himself that causes the most difficulties. 

How do the physical life, psychological life, and spiritual life fit together?

To understand things, we are sometimes tempted to divide and apply arbitrary separations. It is absurd to divide up the body, the psyche, and the spirit — we are one. Whatever door we enter through, the issue is to use personal development as a tool to apprehend the wider question of our humanity. Everything is related.

We all have experienced that a feeling of anguish can be softened by physical exercise. At the same time, we need to avoid separating the different natures that make up our person and, in the same way, respect them. When one of the areas of our person shows a problem, it will need adaptive care so that the work of God’s salvation can unfold more fully. 

What risks might a Christian encounter in undertaking personal development?

I see two risks: one is practical, wherein everything is reduced down to a psychological perspective and disengages from the vocation of the person to be united to God. Or the risk of an ethics with no clear grounding, limited to the union with God that overlooks the incarnation. The risk in this case is that it excludes the human, expecting only the work of the grace, overlooking the importance of the will, free will, that corresponds to every human being. 

In reality, personal development begins with the people we see most: our spouse, children, colleagues, and loved ones who mirror our limitations and make it possible for us to improve. And let’s not forget that Jesus’ commandment is not just “Love your neighbor as yourself” — He gives a “new commandment” that he performs to perfection: “Love each other, as I have loved you.” This new commandment radically diverts us away from ourselves and our personal development to turn us towards others in promising to give our life for them, in a limitless love in which we sacrifice ourselves in imitation of Christ: “”Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).

“As I have loved you” — the authentic imitation of Jesus Christ is ultimately revealed as the absolute opposite of the search for one’s own personal development alone. St. Paul confirms this:

“Share among you one and the same love, one and the same heart, one and the same soul. Do nothing that sets you apart, nothing that puts you above others; on the contrary, put others ahead of yourself. Do not worry only about yourself, you should care for each other. Share among yourselves the same sentiments as Jesus Christ who, although he was divine, did not equate himself with the rank of God, and gave himself up, taking on the position of servant, and followed that obedience to the point of death, death on the cross. (cf.Philippians 2:1-11)

Interview by Bénédicte Drouin

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