Why can’t I just be myself?

by Justin Dillehay

Some of the dumbest things I ever did in life, I did because people around me were doing it. Skoal-dipping, for example. (For those of you who are unititiated, Skoal is a brand of smokeless tobacco.)

I still remember my first dip. My best friend had gotten into it, and I wanted to be like him. I wanted to identify with the kind of redneck culture my friends were into, so I reasoned in good Jeff Foxworthy fashion, “If I can dip Skoal without getting sick, I might be a redneck.”

Judging by my subsequent vomiting, I must not have had it in me yet.

Then there was the phase in junior high when I wanted to identify as a cowboy. I started wearing Wrangler jeans (where else could I have kept the Skoal?), Ropers (those are a brand of lace-up cowboy boots), and a large belt-buckle (with a Rebel flag on it, of course). I topped it off by investing in a Resistol hat and matching bolo. The fact that I didn’t live on a ranch, couldn’t use a lasso, and had scarcely ever ridden a horse didn’t seem to phase me. What mattered was that my friends dressed that way, and those were the people I wanted to imitate.

What all this nonsense must have looked like to my parents I can only imagine.

As far as I can tell, I haven’t suffered any permanent damage from my adolescent foolishness. Indeed, it all seems rather silly to me now. But surely we all know how common this sort of behavior is. I was patterning myself after those I wished to be like.

Or to put it another way, I was imitating my heroes.

But Why Not Just Be Yourself?

Heroes are people we look up to. People we want to be like. This seems natural enough. And yet, many people’s counsel for Justin the aspiring cowboy would have been: “Don’t try to imitate others. Just be yourself.”

Professor Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, encountered this “Be yourself” doctrine over many years with his students, and noted how it competed with the notion of having heroes.

Having heard over a period of years the same kinds of responses to my question about favorite books [i.e. dead silence], I began to ask students who their heroes are. Again, there is usually silence, and most frequently nothing follows. Why should anyone have heroes? One should be oneself and not form oneself in an alien mold…

What Bloom also noticed, however, was that these same students were constantly imitating other people, even as they insisted on “being themselves.” Oddly enough, their “selves” tended to look a lot like other “selves” around them. In short, they were deceiving themselves. Why? Because having heroes is unavoidable. Everyone imitates someone. Bloom continues:

[But] from what source within themselves would they draw the goals they think they set for themselves? Liberation from the heroic only means that they have no resource whatsoever against conformity to the current ‘role models.’

In other words, you will have heroes. The only question is, who will they be? If they’re not great men and women, they will tend to be your idiot peers or people you see on TV.

Imitation is Unavoidable

God has designed the world in such a way that we are all becoming more and more like someone. Christian theologian Jason Hood fleshes this out:

…Imitation is simply inescapable. From birth to adulthood, imitation drives our behavior and beliefs. Peer pressure, the herd mentality, word of mouth, and other social factors and processes create fresh plausibility structures that facilitate experimentation with drugs, religion, facial hair, sushi, and new television programs. We rarely adopt a child, try a new diet, or engage in fasting and prayer unless exemplars model these actions and the mindsets that make the actions possible. We keep up with the Joneses, sometimes with reckless abandon, sometimes almost subconsciously duplicating their patterns of speech, consumption, dress, and recreation. We don’t often use the word imitation to describe this phenomenon, perhaps in part because we love to think of ourselves as unique and independent actors. But we are all imitators, shaped in a thousand ways by what we see and hear around us.
-Jason B. Hood, Imitating God in Christ: Recovering a Biblical Pattern 

In other words, we’re all conformists in some sense.

But not necessarily in the same sense. There are wise conformists and foolish ones. Wise conformists imitate their heroes on purpose, with their eyes open to what they’re doing. Foolish conformists (“conformists” in the usual sense of the word) are typically blind to what they’re doing, slavishly copying the latest fashions in everything, all the while claiming that they’re just “being themselves.”

As the demon Screwtape remarked, lamenting the bland taste of the damned souls he and his fellow demons had been feasting on,

They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern or emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their…normalcy.                                                 -C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Unthinking conformism can land us in the wrong beds, the wrong clothes, the wrong habits, the wrong religions, and eventually the wrong eternal destiny. It’s that serious. If we want a better outcome, we’re going to have to be more conscious, more deliberate, and more choosy about our heroes.

Choosing Your Heroes

The question is not “Will I have heroes?” but “Which heroes will I choose?” Not “Will I be conformed to someone’s image?” but rather, “Whose image will I be conformed to?” And on that question, Scripture offers us basically two options: 1) Adam and the sinners 2) Christ and the saints.

Conforming to Adam and his offspring is easy. Since it’s who we are by nature, it takes no effort at all. Indeed, apart from divine intervention, every last one of us heeds the voice of Adam’s followers in its (superficially) competing forms (Isa. 53:6). And since the gate is wide and the way is broad and many people go into it, we’ll never lack positive reinforcement on our journey (Matt. 7:13). We’ll find plenty of people to reassure us that we’re on the right side of history as we become more and more conformed to this world.

Being conformed to Christ is not easy, however. In fact, it’s impossible, unless a person is born again (John 3:3, 5). But even for those who are born again, it’s still difficult–so difficult that it can feel like taking up a cross. You’ll have to swim against the current of this present evil age. The gate is narrow and way is hard. But at the end of the journey you end you end up alive, not damned (Matt. 7:14). In the end, you end up conformed to the image of Christ.

This is the Christian life. We are non-conformists to the world (Rom. 12:2), but conformists nevertheless. Conformists to Jesus Christ, our Savior and Hero (Rom. 8:29). He is our pattern. He has left us an example, that we might follow in his steps (1 Pet. 2:21). And he has also left us the imperfect but necessary example of multitudes of others who have followed in his steps.

These too are heroes. People like the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine and your sainted grandmother who can look you in the eye and honestly say, “I haven’t fully arrived, but I’m on the right road. So imitate me as I imitate Christ” (Phil. 3:12-17 ).

So don’t fool yourself into thinking you can just be yourself.

Choose your heroes wisely.

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