21 February 2007

Feeling Pretty and Witty and Bright?

Well, get over it. Jennifer Graham contemplates the cult of self-esteem (and the indoctrination therein of her pre-schooler) in the light of Ash Wednesday.

There once was a time when a nagging sense of unworthiness was considered a good thing. This was before 1969, when Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which sanctioned narcissism and pronounced self-esteem as the cornerstone of success. As the cult of self-esteem swelled, the art of self-deprecation — even in jest — became a character flaw, indicative of an interior smoldering heap of insecurity and self-loathing. Humility displaced pride as the seventh deadly sin.

Creaky old relic that it is, the Church persists in thinking that human beings are imperfect creatures that benefit from the occasional sober contemplations of their flaws. Today, the dies cinerum, is one such day. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and even some rogue evangelicals mark the beginning of Lent with ashes smudged on their foreheads, a sooty reminder of mortality and sin: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. As self-esteem goes, you can’t go any lower than this. The ashes, in truth, impose. The Rev. Mark D. Roberts, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote in a Lenten meditation that some congregants complain that the Ash Wednesday service is a “downer.” (Note to these people: Good Friday looms. Get Prozac.)

Somewhere, in the Church of Self-Esteem, a pastor today will smear StriVectin on foreheads, not ashes. “You are special,” he’ll whisper, and the worshiper will smile.

Here's the whole thing.


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