The Inept Empowerment of Self-Expression


I read a news headline a week ago that said “breastfeeding bride nurses during wedding ceremony, getting praise from moms around the world.” At first I thought, “great work from The Onion on that one.” But no, it’s real.

I have no intention of having a debate about breastfeeding. I simply want to make the observation about the narrative surrounding breastfeeding, which is that moms should be able to nurse wherever is needed. This is the all-too-common narrative of empowerment and self-expression.

This is certainly not unique to breastfeeding. These issues make headlines every single day. Racial tensions. Gun rights. Political activism. Religious liberty. Today the cure for marginalization is self-expression. Those who do not provide for the self-expression of others are those who are marginalizing others.

Expressive Individualism

Sociologists describe this societal push as expressive individualism: the belief that identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self.

In light of this growing belief system (yes belief system, self-expression has a rigorous devotion today), I want to ask the question: when should you limit yourself? When should you choose not to exercise your rights?

Even in Jesus’ day there was a remarkable focus on personal rights, chief among them the right to life. He said in John 10 about his own right to life: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Here we see Jesus saying ‘I have this right but I choose not to exercise it.’ In fact, in many things in life, the highest value comes not in exercising your rights, but in laying them down for the sake of others.

Can you find true satisfaction in life by being able to express who you are? Or is something missing? Is there a reason to limit yourself for the sake of freedom?

The only way to be truly fulfilled in your self-expression is for someone or something outside of yourself to validate it. This is why there’s such backlash against people and groups who come across as inhibiting self-expression today, because the validation of self-expression is necessary for the fulfillment of it.

Self-expression is basically a performance then, where you try to get others to like you and your expression of yourself.

A Better Way

This is what makes the Christian faith so powerfully different.

While God’s Word allows for all people to express who they are, validation is not given through expression. God sees you and already validates you, so you don’t have to look to people and things beyond yourself to give you a pat on the back.

Because we are already validated and loved by God, we are freed from the constant need to fully express ourselves, to instead keep our eyes focused on the needs of others. You can be freed, through limitation.

David Brooks of the New York Times had this to say to high school graduates a few years back:

“Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

The Christian does not need to find empowerment through self-expression because they worship a God who gave up his rights, and He empowers you to find the truest life by giving up yours. 

{Image: Jayme Burrows}