The myth of being who we are

May 2, 2011

Pam defies TSA regulations to say goodbye to Michael

Unlike many of you, I found myself strangely unsentimental about last week’s episode of The Office. I’m not sure why. I thought the farewell scene between Jim and Michael was very effective, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief over the final scene at the airport. I was distracted by the thought that Pam couldn’t have made it through security without buying a plane ticket!

Still, this has been a strong season of The Office overall—perhaps the best since Season 3. And I’m intrigued by the “competition” to replace Michael. One candidate (if we believe the network hype) is none other than Ricky Gervais, who co-created the BBC Office series on which the American series is based and played David Brent, the boss on that show. (Gervais has an executive producer’s credit on the American show, along with co-creator Stephen Merchant.)

One of my friends said that Gervais would be perfect for the role because, after all, “he’s the same character.” That’s exactly wrong—as anyone who’s seen the BBC series can attest. There are similarities, of course. Both characters are incompetent as managers and often act wildly inappropriately. But their chief character flaws are drastically different.

Gervais’s character is desperately insecure. He craves other people’s approval and affection. And he is often made painfully aware of how other people (accurately) perceive him. He resents them for it and consequently has a massive chip on his shoulder.

Michael, by contrast, enjoys a complete lack of self-awareness. No matter how disastrous his decisions, no matter how buffoonish his behavior, he believes everyone basically loves and approves of him. In fact, the most painful moments on the show were those mercifully rare occasions when self-awareness began to dawn on him. I’m thinking of the Dundee Awards episode from Season 2, when patrons at Chili’s yelled insults at him.

As someone who tends to be overly self-conscious and has often struggled with self-esteem, I find much to admire in Michael. Here is someone, after all, who never worries about what other people think of him. He never fails to be optimistic. No matter what life throws him, he never doubts his ability to land on his feet. He is, for better or worse, his own person. He is true to himself.

But of course that can’t be right—not from a Christian perspective. Humanity’s problem, after all, is that we are unable to be ourselves. We are unable to be who we truly are—which is to say, unable to be who God created us to be. In fact, as David Mills points out in this excellent First Things article, there was exactly one person in history who was able to be completely himself—who “was perfectly who he was”—and we killed him on Good Friday.

Remember the temptation in the Garden. The serpent didn’t say, “Eat this fruit and become who you truly are.” He said, “Eat this fruit and become like God.” This is profoundly insightful. Human history tells the tragic story of our efforts to be someone—or Someone—we are not. The truth is, we are not any good at being gods. As my systematic theology professor once said, “We can know Jesus was God because he was the only person who ever lived who didn’t act like God.”

No wonder Jesus taught that the path to authentic personhood and true living was self-denial; taking up our cross and essentially killing ourselves—that is, our false selves. This seems so contrary to the spirit of our times, but there’s no other way to find lasting happiness. Michael Scott seems happier than most people simply because he’s unaware of how far short he falls of the person he might otherwise want to be.

I like this quote from Mills:

Christ reveals man to himself, not just generically but particularly. He reveals you to yourself. If you truly want to know who you are, look at Jesus, and imitate him as best you can. Any small effort to do what he did makes you a tiny bit more ourselves and removes a little piece of whatever vesture you’ve put on. Taking up your cross, following him, losing your life for his sake: all modes of self-knowledge.

4 Responses to “The myth of being who we are”

  1. Paul Wallace Says:

    Great post, Brent. Love your last line, “Michael Scott is happy because he’s unaware of how far short he falls of the person he might otherwise want to be.” Wonderful. Gotta clip and save that one.

    P.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks so much, Paul! It might find its way in a sermon sometime. That’s one reason I like this blog… It helps me remember stuff!


  2. Hi Brent,
    I’m reading your posts in reverse chronological order. I really love this post. What you have said here is what I was thinking when I responded to your “No other hands” post. I think our problems are not the selves we really are, but the false ones we try to be.

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s exactly right. It seems paradoxical, but we’re only able to be who we are by self-emptying, dying to oneself, etc—which is to say, dying to our false selves.


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