In this week’s Gospel reading Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples, if anyone wanted to follow him, they needed to deny themselves and take up their cross.
These are very difficult words.
Who am I to deny myself? Why would I listen to me? Who’s doing the talking and who’s doing the listening? Just as one cannot (without a mirror) see one’s own eye it should also be true that one cannot deny oneself, can they? Is self denial tantamount to emotional, financial and social suicide?
Jesus’ demand only makes sense if there are in fact two entities with a claim to being ourselves. Maybe we see this when we speak about being beside oneself, or in phrases like, “So I said to myself.” One is speaking and one is listening. There is at least two of us in this dialogue.
Perhaps it is true that one’s self is what might be called our true or essential self. Maybe we get glimpses of this when we experience strong emotions such as joy or despair, love or hate. Or, I couldn’t help myself. Perhaps this self is somehow less true, authentic and essential. Maybe this is the protective self or mask we show to the world or the role we play in the world. It can be called a persona and it is what we hope the rest of the world sees and is usually who we think we are.
Our persona is not only who we hope the world sees, but it is also formed by the world. We are good students, good citizens, good children, good parents, we are well thought of as we help uphold and enhance the world order in which we live.
But this persona is a social construct, it lacks direct access to our truer, authentic and essential self. It knows how to feign feelings but not how to actually feel. This persona is transactional, so it doesn’t experience the true experience of love. People trapped or identified in their role in life have a sense of not knowing who they really are. There is the basic tragedy that awaits those who never seek, knock and ask for enlightenment.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son, in the midst of abject poverty and despair, comes to himself and decides to return to the father. His life-crisis led to this re-identification with his true self, a denial of his hubris and a return to place of welcoming celebration.
Jesus calls us to deny this social-self, that is the one that is defined and is identified with our culture’s values. He begins the passage by asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” I believe this is because he knows how confused people are when they encounter a person who has fully identified with their true and essential self.
If we want to experience our true selves, our true life, we should listen to Jesus when he says we should deny ourselves. Because in so doing we begin a process of identifying with the real story and true experience of being human.
It is fascinating that we can do this by our own volition. My thought is that life’s crushing disappointments as well as life’s mystical eruptions of profound joy, loosen the hold of our personas. The old self passes away, it has little appeal, little value in comparison to the vivid technicolor life that is filled with rainbows of colors and intense capacities to feel love and connection. After these loosening experiences we become better able to hear Jesus’ radical call!
If you want to follow Jesus, if you want to feel fully alive, deny your self, (which is not really you) and pick up the cross of the man who lived fully with God and neighbor.