Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch is the most helpful book I’ve read on theological anthropology in a long time. That may sound strange because the book is written by a secular sex therapist who bases his findings on science and his experience as a clinician.
Tim Keller, Identity and Idolatry
When I first started listening to Tim Keller sermons in August of 2006 his preaching awakened me to thinking about persons through his filter of identity and idolatry. For Keller’s treatment of that in written form check out his book “Counterfeit Gods”.
Keller opened up for me a whole new approach to understanding human behavior and the traditional Christian concept of sin through seeing idolatry as basing your identity upon something other than your creator. He noted that people locate their lives in political causes, money, relationships, approval by others, appearance, and other performance based lifestyles.
In a number of sermons he tells the story of a woman he knew whose life was ransacked through serial relationships with untrustworthy men. After years of repeating the same self-destructive pattern she eventually got therapy. The therapist helped her see that she was grounding her identity upon men and her relationships with them and she needed to find another ground. The therapist suggested she invest in her career. The woman, however, was wise enough to recognize that making her career her life would be just as unreliable as making men her life. Eventually she landed on the idea of making Christ her life. Her identity would be placed “offshore” in something that would not abuse her or imprison her.
Keller tells the story that when she would be attracted to a new man (by virtue of her own history she would be attracted to the kind of men that weren’t good for her) she would look at that man and self-talk a bit. “You’re a man. I’d like to have a man in my life, but you are NOT my LIFE.” You don’t need to be a Christian to recognize the health of this self-talk.
The Sticky Self
As the Apostle Paul noted in Romans 1 our hearts are continually tempted to bond with the stuff around us and quite often these bonds become bondage. We find our selves, we construct our selves in the things around us.
I remember a scene in a hospital waiting room during a very tragic chapter in a family’s life. I remember in a moment of great pain a brother and a sister embracing and singing a drippy song from the 70s. The song had been very popular but its lyrics were drippy and rather oblique. Here these two probably in their youth had bonded with this song and therefore in this moment of great sorrow found solace in this silly song. My point isn’t that this was necessarily so wrong, but rather than our hearts aren’t necessarily very choosy in what we bond with if it comes attached to the right moment and what we need for the moment.
One of the most amazing things that I’ve seen in my contact with human beings is that we are incredibly adaptable and our identities can be incredibly malleable. People find their identities in music, in sports teams, in the places they grew up, in a club or sport they did in school, in a hobby, etc. People are amazing.
This capacity has obviously been a source of much joy and wonderful culture making throughout human history, but also much misery. Cults, dictators, nationalism, ideologies, religions, ideals have bound people in destructive and devastating ways throughout the history of the world. Our sticky selves are the stuff of great joy and triumph as well as great tragedy.
The Reflected Self
The phrase in David Schnarch’s book that rocked my world was his observation “your first self is a reflected self.”
I had to sit and ponder that statement for a few moments. What did that mean? I wasn’t sure but I could sense it was important.
I thought about an infant that knows nothing but its own young history outside the womb. It’s learning about temperature, sounds, colors, and a whole new tactile world. It’s learning how to move its hands, its body, how to find the nipple and how to nurse. It’s been hearing and recognizing sounds and voices since before it was born but soon she will learn to focus her eyes and she will come to know faces, especially the faces of Mom and Dad.
In most robot apocalypse movies the crucial launching moment of the plot is the moment of self-awareness. Human beings arrive at this moment early. Soon the baby will learn that she is distinct from Mom and the rest of the world and that she is a self.
The world of “self” for a small child is one of discovery. Soon the child will learn that the child has power to choose, to do, to impact. The child will also learn that she lives in a large world where there is “no”, frustration, pain, and other things. The self the child continues to discover and develop is in fact a reflected self. The child can’t see or experience the self much apart from others. At first most of the reflection is coming from parents and care givers. Increasingly it starts coming from classmates and friends. Soon it will start coming from strangers.
The Self-constructed, Reflected Self
Why do people think they often need to strike out from their community of origin to “find their selves?” It is because they are looking for more, new and different mirrors than what they’ve had. Often they will go to a big city because each mirror out there makes the self look a bit different. We are in fact constructing our “selves”, our identities from the things we find around us. From our friends, from the stuff around us, from our relationship. It isn’t dissimilar from trying on new clothes and looking in the mirror to see how the new clothes make us look. We do all of this implicitly.
One of the major changes in developmental human history is the invention of the constructed identity. People of course have long been doing it but one of the geniuses of our contemporary culture is our capacity to popularize and multiply what in past centuries was only the advantage of the elite. People used to receive a full, rounded identity by virtue of their birth. Your gender, your father’s occupation, your class, your caste, your ethnic group, your place of birth, the loves, religions and hobbies of your parents established your identity. You would in term go forward, supplement it, develop it, etc. but for the majority of people the parameters were fairly fixed and the variety of influences that a common person might encounter would be limited.
Identity from a clean sheet of paper
All of this has changed and a good bit of what marks our own social situation is the construction of identities. Certainly many of the received aspects of our identities are still quite powerful and determinative for our outcomes, but part of what is central especially to the American dream is that you can make yourself into whatever you want to be. This cultural ideology is a religion of choice. If you want to this narrative says that you can self-construct or re-construct almost all of the aspects that past generations simply accepted as received.
Choose your gender, your ethnicity, your vocation, your self. You do this by re-arranging the mirrors around you by which you construct your self. You used to have to move to a big city in order to do this, but today you can get most of the pieces you need via the Internet. You can be who you want to be and most of us pretty clearly see that the Army would only be one of a myriad of choices.
Reflected Selves in Intimate Relationships
Schnarch’s book is all about how this plays out in the context of marriage. In the initial stages of infatuation and attraction the other is desired not necessarily for his or her self, that self in fact can hardly be seen or known initially. That object of romantic desire is valued for his or her capacity to shape our reflected self. To be in an intimate relationship is to be deeply validated and affirmed and for our hungry, reflected selves this is one of the greatest most powerful drugs we can imagine. Through this object of our affection we see ourselves as valued, as worthy, as loved, as desirable. Our romantic partners become the mirrors that seem to improve and address the failures, insecurities and disappointments of our pasts. (See Harville Hendrix’ work on why we pick who we attach with.)
In time we begin to realize that people aren’t really the best mirrors from which to construct our reflected selves with. The person, the real person over time begins to assert themselves and we stop receiving the reflected selves that we were first so attached to. Initially there is plenty of accommodating so that both sides can simultaneously self-construct their reflected selves but at some point the whole thing starts to break down. Schnarch sees this not so much as a failure, but rather an opportunity to get beyond your reflected self and to begin to become a more solid, flexible self.
Schnarch’s Four Points of Balance
Schnarch asserts that most relationships will break down into gridlock where eventually neither partner can no longer finally finesse their way out of the inevitable impasse and what is required is that one or both people need to develop what he calls the 4 points of balance:
1. Solid Flexible Self™—the ability to be clear about who you are and what you’re about, especially when your partner pressures you to adapt and conform.
2. Quiet Mind–Calm Heart™—being able to calm yourself down, soothe your own hurts, and regulate your own anxieties.
3. Grounded Responding™—the ability to stay calm and not overreact, rather than creating distance or running away when your partner gets anxious or upset.
4. Meaningful Endurance™—being able to step up and face the issues that bedevil you and your relationship, and the ability to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth.
Schnarch, David (2011-07-01). Intimacy & Desire (p. 72). Beaufort Books. Kindle Edition.
Solid selves and the capacity to love (rather than to be loved)
Those of us who live from our reflected selves live the quest to get our partners, our kids, and much of the rest of the world to reflect back to us the self we wish be. This will almost always lead to conflict because people are not mirrors or outfits we try on in order to construct our “selves”, they are people, often consumed by their own quest of self-construction.
Part of the irony of the reflected self is that this self has little capacity to love. It has an enormous hunger to be loved, to be affirmed, to be constructed by arrange people or partners perceived to be mirrors around us in such a way as to feed our hunger to be the glorious centers of the universe. We long to be loved but only a more solid self can actually have the freedom and capacity for love.
Mirrors Reflecting God’s Glory
It is here that I begin to put together Schnarch and CS Lewis. Lewis has a great conclusion to a chapter in Mere Christianity where he says this.
The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.
Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (pp. 205-206). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
We were made to be mirrors and our selves, our first selves are reflected selves on purpose. I’ve got much more work to do in working through and assimilating Schnarch’s insight but one of the areas I wonder about is not how solid we will become but how singular our self will ever become. I think by virtue of the stickiness of our selves we were in fact made for relationship but our flimsy reflected selves are poor ones.
Looking for the only safe, off-shore mirror
Schnarch understands marriage, marriages in which people don’t give up, as a great engine for human development. This engine can produce solid people (again, CS Lewis’ Great Divorce) who actually have the capacity to love rather than the addiction to constantly attempt to construct their identities by using the people and things around them. That habit of using people and things to construct ourselves is idolatry and we can never grow up and become solid until we stop using.
The irony of the situation with having a reflected self is that I don’t think we finally lose it. Learning to become a reflected self from Christ is a similar but safer process, not unlike what the woman in Tim Keller’s sermon illustration performed. Grounding our identity in the love and commitment of Christ towards us affords us a more solid self from which we can develop the capacity to love the other here around us and the good and beautiful things that the creator has lavished upon our planet.
Schnarch has a lot of helpful things to say in his book in terms of finding your 4 points of balance, and if I have time and desire enough hopefully I’ll write more.