“Become who you are!” St. John Paul II used to encourage us. I loved that. But I ran into a problem: how to figure out what, or who, that was?
People have different ideas on how to go about this. One popular approach is to strip away all your roles. Once you’ve shed all that extraneous stuff, you’ll be able to see what lies beneath it. You’ll be free, the theory goes, to become who you really are.
Well, that depends: what do we mean by “roles”? There are lots of possibilities, but here are four, for starters:
One meaning of "role" is all the “socially constructed” aspects of you. They’re not part of who you “really” are, but they’re so deeply embedded in you, you can’t tell the difference. The culture has been telling you they’re part of your very self—but they’re not! Once you realize that, you’re free!
This idea is critiqued in Maggie Gallagher’s 1989 book, Enemies of Eros. Her target is a certain kind of feminism which assumes that if you peel back all the layers—the stereotypes, the expectations, all the socially constructed elements—like your gender—you’ll unearth the “secret Self."
Underneath all those social, religious, and cultural expectations lies the real person. Wifehood, motherhood, womanhood, faith—they all need to be stripped away. It’s hard to say what, exactly, is left, but whatever it is, that's the pure, unencumbered Self.
When some people urge the importance of breaking free of roles, what they really mean is breaking free of other persons. To find out who you really are, you might need to desert your wife, your husband, or your children.
This has led to all kinds of sad, ‘70’s-style scenarios of people abandoning their families out of a terribly misplaced and confused sense of a duty to “find themselves.” At least, some sincerely saw it as a duty. For others, it was more of a pretext. They all talked as if relationships—even when freely entered into—were no part of who you really were. They had no sense of John Paul’s insight into discovering, or becoming, who you are through the experience of a communion of persons.
A more benign expression of this idea is the idolization of “Me time.” It can easily get out of hand, as Bethany Baird writes here, and needs to be rightly understood and integrated into the midst of life with other human beings, not greedily hoarded, as Lydia points out here. Otherwise, in trying to break free from roles, while you don’t abandon your husband and children, you see them as a hindrance, a work environment from which you’re absolutely entitled to a certain amount of time off.
A role can also just be a function: a job I do. I might play the role of a Vice President of Marketing, or a cashier at the 7-Eleven. Neither one necessarily has anything to do with who I really am. Behind the timeworn question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” lurks a disquieting presumption: you are your job. If you don’t have one, or a sufficiently impressive one, you don’t count.
I make a point of not asking my kids what they want to be when they grow up, at least not in a way that insinuates that their personhood depends on their resume, but I do try to instill the idea that they’re meant to do some very particular thing, play some very personal, particular role, that only they can play. They won't get closer to authentic selfhood by staring at YouTube all day, hoping no one asks them to set the table or practice the piano.
What if your role is your vocation? This can lead to confusion, too. I don’t mean “vocation” in the narrow sense of a calling to religious life. I’m thinking of a recent Facebook conversation with someone who feels called to work in a certain field but can’t get hired, someone else who feels called to study for a certain degree but can’t get accepted into a program. What if your calling just isn’t possible? Maybe you’re just fooling yourself, or maybe you’re giving up too easily. But what about when your “calling” ends up far, far removed from the life you’re actually living? How are you supposed to "become who you are" when your attempts are thwarted at every turn?
There are grains of truth in our misguided and fumbling attempts to figure it all out. "Self-realization" is one of those words that's been overused and abused beyond recognition. But that's no reason to reject the real thing and ignore John Paul's advice.