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Scott’s Column: Our Best Selves

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
February 9 2021

This Epiphany season our worship has focused on the Fruits of the Spirit.  This theme has allowed us to focus attention on practical steps we can take to live well and grow our spiritual practices, particularly as we continue through this difficult pandemic era.

Last Sunday I preached on the fruit of self-control.  The traditional concept of self-control is rather limited, especially given our best current wisdom about humanity.  Instead, I tried to focus on some tools we do have for being our best selves.  I think all of us seek balance, harmony, and contentment.  We don’t want to be blown about by the events of our lives, but want to be centered.  We want to identify our weaknesses and work on them.  We want to be aware of our limits.  And we want to encourage and develop our strengths.

As I preached, I think the Holy Spirit wants that too.  The Spirit dwells within us comforting, advocating, inspiring, encouraging, and empowering us to live the life that God dreams for us.

Mark R. Leary in his book The Curse of the Self discusses how the human self evolved in prehistoric times to help us survive and thrive but that it has some limitations in the modern world that can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.  While he talks about how to practice effective self-control, he points out that too much emphasis on self-control can add to our problems by keeping us too focused on the self.  Instead, we should develop a better approach to the self that minimizes the need for self-control.

He advocates first giving yourself and everyone else more slack because we are dealing with tools evolved for different circumstances than those in which we live.

Next, and most importantly, we need to develop ways to quiet the self, particularly the constant critical chatter in our heads.  Spiritual practices are excellent tools for this–meditation, prayer, study, etc.  Also cultivating experiences of flow those “satisfying, exhilarating feelings of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning” (to quote Jane McGonigal referencing the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Music, art, dance, sports, play, etc. can provide these experiences.

Leary next recommends developing ego-skepticism.  We interpret the world from our own subjective perspective and so does everyone else.  Our perspective is just one, not the only one.

Finally, we should foster self-compassion as a way of reducing ego-defensiveness.  The kinder and gentler we are with ourselves, the less likely we are to react in defensive and critical ways.

The ancient wisdom of the New Testament is that we can achieve a whole and faithful life by controlling aspects of our self.  With modern psychology we have a richer and more nuanced understanding, but still want to achieve the same goals.