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How (and how not) to be certain of yourself.

When I was a little girl, my favourite book was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As much as I disliked cats, the Cheshire Cat defied all expectations with his wisdom. Alice is lost in the woods, exiled in a world that she does not recognize, so she addresses the good-natured-looking Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Perched in a tree above her and sporting a wide grin full of teeth, the Cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to go.” Alice responds, “I don’t much care where—” and the Cat interrupts, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.” This seemingly childish and fantastical conversation sums up rather well the modern problem—both individuals and the communities in which they participate move forward without a sense of direction.

As much as I get all the feels watching Anna sing, “Do the Next Right Thing” in Frozen 2, I hit pause and asked my children (seven and five years old), “How do you know what the next right thing is?” The advice “do the next right thing” is drawn from twelve-step programs that trace a road from addiction to freedom. However, when we apply that principle to life broadly, we might ask: What freedom? From what? And for what end? If we only focus on the steps in front of us, or like Alice, on the movement rather than the destination, we may head far along the wrong road. C.S. Lewis points out, “If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.” Only when a world catastrophe occurs and suddenly there exists a chasm where there was once a bridge does anyone pause and wonder, how did we get here and where are we going?

The Myth of the Autonomous Self

In Frozen 2, Anna knows the “next right thing” because of the voice inside her head. Although she admits, “I can’t find my direction,” Anna hears “a tiny voice” whisper “in [her] mind.” Forgive me for having read too much Flannery O’Connor, but that voice cannot be trusted. O’Connor writes, “When the Protestant hears what he supposes to be the voice of the Lord, he follows it regardless of whether it runs counter to his church’s teaching. The Catholic believes any voice he may hear comes from the Devil unless it is in accordance with the teachings of the Church.” While O’Connor casts too broad a net concerning the Protestant tradition, she is thinking of those who buttress their opinions and desires by couching everything as “God’s will” outside of a community of practice, or tradition. This is the “God Within” fallacy that Ross Douthat writes about in Bad Religion, the Supreme Self that rules. Each person has the competency to declare what is good or true for her. As the writer of the book of Judges repeatedly puts it, “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” When each person does what seems like the “right thing,” it may lead to violence and chaos.

The myth of the autonomous individual begins early. Imagination is formed by children’s films or literature. (How many of you see the Cheshire Cat as purple and pink striped as in Disney’s animated film?) What we read and watch as children leaves a lasting impression on the way we approach our lives. Consider Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go, given when children “graduate” kindergarten. The opening pages speak to the reader, “You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” For decades, the message conveyed has been—you are on your own, walking a road of your own making, toward whatever destination you chose.

Unfortunately, this myth is not new to this upcoming generation. In 1908 G.K. Chesterton penned Orthodoxy to confront the idiocy of the motto “Believe in yourself”:

Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Supermen. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.

To believe in oneself is to constrict and narrow one’s world and one’s perspective: you become a very tiny god whose only interactions with others will either be competition (two gods cannot occupy the same space) or dehumanization (others exist for your pleasure). “How much larger your life would be,” Chesterton exclaims, “if your self could become smaller in it.” If one could stop seeing the self as the road and the destination or as the author of the story. There are much better stories that tell us who we truly are.

Over a century ago, Chesterton warned us against our attachment to the self, but too few heeded this advice. Now we spend much of our time researching methods of self-improvement or self-help, investing in self-care, and promoting ourselves online. This obsession with the self—which much of the time remains below the surface of our minds, hearts, and wills—has caused us to be less certain of our identity and our purpose than we hoped. Surely focusing on the self would lead to mastery of the self, yet we remain, as Frederick Nietzsche wrote, “unknown, we knowers, to ourselves.” Like Alice in Wonderland, we too are lost.

Lost in the Woods (and the Cosmos)

In his 1983 “self-help” satire Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy chose Nietzsche’s words as his epigraph. The book pretends to be “The Last Self-Help Book” (and occasionally gets stocked on the wrong shelves of bookstores because of the subtitle). But the word “last” here is more than apocalyptic; the book hopes to show the reader that “self-help” is not possible and therefore cure the reader from ever longing to buy one again. Hence, this self-help book will be your last.

Percy sets up the book to be interactive, with quizzes and thought experiments structured like a self-help book. The first word of the book is an imperative to the reader: “Imagine.” Percy, without the reader’s awareness, has already begun the process of counteracting the individual’s assumptions about the self. A command to a reader begins a relationship in which the author assumes authority, and the reader responds in obedience. An autonomous self should shut the book and read no further. Anyone who reads past the first word has already participated in undoing the hold this lie has on the self. The practice of imagining also provides for a moment distance from the self; it requires the humility to enter another’s vision of the world, to experience another’s reality and perspective. Percy hopes to change his readers’ assumptions about the self.

Until the end of the book, Percy offers a host of potential adjectives with which the reader could identify herself: “Amnesic Self,” “Demoniac Self,” and so on. Like a quiz in a magazine that helps pinpoint your personality or love language, Percy’s book guides readers toward defining the self. Unlike magazine quizzes, which let you quantify and settle on your adjectives, Percy’s book crosses out all alternative identities, leaving only the vague inclination that perhaps each of us is “a pilgrim and a wayfarer not at home in this world and bound for his true home elsewhere; but he is always at home in the worldly sense of being at home.” This imagination game has led the reader to a Christian vision of the self.

It is the imagination of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Percy’s title refers not only to Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos, but also to the fourteenth-century Italian epic, which begins with a pilgrim lost—not in the cosmos—but in the woods. A dozen years before Lost in the Cosmos, Percy began his third novel with an allusion to Dante: “Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines.” The metaphor of lost in the wilderness has become cliché to our ears, so Percy has to alter Dante’s language in order for us to hear it fresh. “The old words of grace,” Percy writes, “are worn smooth as poker chips.” Percy defamiliarizes us with Christian language, so that we can better hear the wisdom of Dante, the ancients, or the Bible.

At the end of Lost in the Cosmos, Percy writes a couple of dramatic sci-fi episodes. In the first, an earth spaceship is asking to board an extraterrestrial spaceship, which is keeping it in orbit until it can discover what kind of creatures the earthlings are—namely, what stage of consciousness. If we translate Percy’s science-fiction categories into biblical language, C1 consciousness is Edenic and C3 is Redeemed, whereas C2 is what most of us are, fallen creatures. As the space captain of PC3 explains to the Earthship captain: when C2s become “self-conscious” but do not know “what to do with the self, not even knowing what the self is,” they end by “being that which it is not, saying that which it is not, doing that which is not, and making others what they are not.” In this conversation, Percy is underscoring that we all wear masks and become liars when we do not know who we are. PC3 explains that from his experience with C2s, “They are mainly interested in self-esteem. . . . They do not know themselves or what to do with themselves.” Self-conscious to an extreme but without knowledge of that self is what causes us to be lost.

For Dante, this realization occurred when Pope Boniface VIII exiled him from his home city. How then shall Dante live having lost his job as a Florentine politician, lost his family who stayed behind in the city, and lost his home? Dante had to reconceive of everything that he assumed about his self. Yet his poem begins with the supposition that this is a universal condition: “Midway through the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way had been lost.” Dante employs the plural pronoun “our,” assuming the reader shares this lostness. And he alludes to the straight way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14), which a few verses later he calls the true way (la verace via). We leave the truth for lies, or as PC3 put it, we do “that which is not.”

The external circumstances of Dante’s life compelled him to re-examine the road that he was travelling. If not for the suffering and loss that he experienced, Dante could have continued down the wrong road for a very long time. Percy too credits his contraction of tuberculosis and subsequent treatment in quarantine with his decision to become a Catholic and a novelist; if not for that near-fatal sickness, Percy may have lived the rest of his years quite contentedly as a doctor in New York.

The circumstances of 2020 may have been eye-opening for many people: the disruption caused by a worldwide plague, the oncoming financial recession and loss of income, the change in routine, the isolation, the protests in response to the killings of African Americans, the looting and riots that caused distress. What road were we travelling before this disruption, and what course should we now be on?

Ask for Help

Dante raises his eyes in this dark wood and sees the sun above a mountain, yet the way that he desires to climb is blocked. As Dante is about to relinquish hope, a guide—Virgil, the author of the Aeneid and Dante’s poetic teacher—enters the scene to direct him to the better way, one that actually moves toward the mountain and its light by first going through hell. Dante must learn to see himself as the worst of sinners, as deserving of the punishments of every circle of hell. Without seeing himself as what Percy calls a C2 consciousness, there is no way for Dante to climb up Mount Purgatory toward the light. And the source of light is the destination for him. When he does reach the apex of the mountain (spoiler alert), Virgil says, “Your judgment now is free and whole and true; / to fail to follow its will would be to stray. / Lord of yourself I crown and miter you.” Paradoxically, the goal to become master of the self happens after one relinquishes the self’s ambition to be Master. As Dante translator Anthony Esolen explains, “One cannot free oneself. . . . To accept one’s own helplessness, throwing oneself upon the mercy of God is to embrace the virtue most fundamental to Purgatory . . . humility.”

In Lost in the Cosmos, C2s can become C3s by realizing that they are C2s and then asking for help. The captain of the Earthship refuses: “[We] help ourselves.” The insistence on absolute autonomy damns us to isolation, enslavement, and lies. Esolen writes, “We can be self-sufficient only at a level barely above savagery. But man needs more than food, shelter, clothing. Since we are rational beings, we need to enjoy also the fruits of the intellect, such as music, poetry, conversation, and that greatest product of conversation known as the pursuit of wisdom.” Dante’s journey from inferno to paradise reveals the necessity of seeing oneself as a wayfarer among other wayfarers. Because of intercession of Mary, St. Lucy, and his love Beatrice, Dante receives the intervention he needed to return to the right road. And his guide Virgil leads him into hell and up the mountain, away from enslavement toward freedom. The second volume of the poem, Purgatorio, feels like a church service with its liturgy of Scripture quotations, sung hymns, and beatitudes. Each level of the mountain teaches Dante through sculpture, music, and drama how to live well. Whereas in hell each person is isolated from others, fulfilling what each desires, living by his or her own will, in purgatory freedom is bestowed by the one who learns to live as a brother or sister, who submits his or her will to the commands of others in authority, such as Cato, or follows the directions of guides along the way.

Percy’s book ends with a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) that is directed at the reader: “Do you have a self? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are doing? Do you love? Do you know how to love? Are you loved? Do you hate? Do you read me? Come back. Repeat. Come back. Come back. Come back.” Literally, the message “Come back” asks for a response from humans to the ETI, but figuratively, Percy is asking that we make the about-turn that Lewis suggested, that we have been going down the wrong road. It is an invitation to no longer be “lost in the cosmos forever,” but to follow the guides that we rejected when we declared we could forge our own way.

Knowing Right by Light

In Psalm 119:105 the poet refers to God’s word as a “lamp unto our feet” and a “light unto our path.” The road and its steps are illuminated by God’s word. Tara-Leigh Cobble explains that the “lamp” acts as a flashlight one step ahead and the “light” like a floodlight, like the light at creation. Sometimes God’s word casts enough light to only put one foot in front of the other, while other times we are granted a revelation of the whole journey before us. We know the “next right thing” when we “walk according to the law of the Lord,” “seek him with all” our heart, and “follow his ways,” as the psalmist writes in verses 1–3.

In a sermon on Jesus’s temptations in the desert, the great theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman repeats the exclamation: “I love Jesus for the shaft of light that he throws across the pathway of those who seek to answer the question, What shall I do with my life?” What an unexpected word in a sermon on Jesus’s temptations. The temptation would be to answer the question, “What shall I do with my life?” for one’s self—that is what underscores all three temptations in the desert. Yet Thurman shows that Jesus responds to each trial by quoting God’s Word. Rather than assuming autonomous authority, Jesus humbles himself to the Lord’s Word—he places the authority where it belongs, and thus is free to act. Not only is Jesus following God’s ways by letting his Word provide the light for his steps, but Jesus himself is the Word and the Light.

When we are navigating the uncertain way before us, we must not pretend to be anything other than what we are—fallen creatures in need of help. And help has come. We do not have to fashion our own road, but we may walk confidently in the ways of those who have gone before us toward a true destination—Dante, Chesterton, O’Connor, Percy, Thurman, and others. The darkness increases when we try and act as our own light. We will find ourselves further lost from the true path. Instead, may we imagine that we are pilgrims. That we lost the way forward out of our own pride, but that there are signposts illuminated for us to follow the way back to the right road, which leads ultimately to an eternal city.

Image: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1875.

Read “Through a Looking Glass Darkly” by Jessica Hooten Wilson on the Comment Cardus here.

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