I celebrate myself, and sing myself.
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
If you’ve ever read Whitman you’ve likely read Part One of Leaves of Grass: Song of Myself, in which he stacks stanza upon stanza of nonsensical, selfish grandiosity. It’s tiring to read, and the worst assignment of any American Lit class. It’s also the song of the modern American.
This self-absorption and personal deification, wherein we meditate constantly and deeply on our own existence, and attempt to interact with people only because they are an extension of ourselves, is the premise of most self-help books in publication, and “Christian” books are no exception–though they should be.
Singing The Song of Myself has been rebranded as self-care, pursuit of happiness, and identifying our inner power, but the message itself hasn’t changed much. Whitman proclaimed, “I celebrate myself”, and this is repeated today as a novelty of new and brave thinkers, but it isn’t, nor was it new when Whitman said it either. “I celebrate myself” has been the herald of humans since the first bite of forbidden fruit, and that’s precisely our problem.
The first temptation was spoken with the allure of self-fulfillment, “you will be like God.” Eve fell for it, Adam fell for it, and every last one of us have fallen for it ever since. The problems we’re trying to fix by turning into ourselves and releasing our inner power, celebrating our true selves, or searching for our personal happiness, are there precisely because we are all plagued with a repeating song of our own praise from our own lips. This is why we are empty, this is why we are unhappy, this is why we hurt one another, this is why the world is the way that it is. We are all seeking to love ourselves first, looking out only for our best interest, “loving” others only when it serves our own needs, viciously seeking our ambitions and pleasures at whatever cost, and ultimately pushing out the God of the universe from our lives so we can sing our singular songs of praise, imagining the expansive universe revolves around our finite, selfish selves.
The Song of Myself is an alluring song, it sounds beautiful to our own ears, but not to anyone else’s. We’re all singing our own melody producing a cacophony of dissenting voices all clambering over one another in an effort to be the only one heard. It’s chaos, and ugly, and pathetic. Yet somehow it still glitters, it sounds so good to our self-seeking ears to say we’re gods. But as the old axiom says, “not all that glitters is gold,” and The Song of Myself is not a harmless pyrite, it’s a glittery pit that will lead us to our own destruction. If our ultimate aim is our own self-serving goals and happiness, then we will inevitably hurt others in our pursuit, and ultimately waste our short lives. One day we will find that eternity stretches before us and we’ve done nothing but pursued fleeting moments of finite pleasures and decayed treasures.
So how do we avoid skipping ourselves off to emptiness while deafly singing a tune that no one else wants to hear?
The stoics say: ‘Go back into yourselves. There you will find peace.’ And it is not true.
Others say: ‘Go out, look for happiness in some distraction.’ And that is not true.
Happiness is neither outside us nor within us. It is in God.
Not only is it through Jesus Christ alone that we know God but it is only through Jesus Christ that we know ourselves.
It is not by singing songs of ourselves that we will fill the emptiness we feel. Self-Actualization fails us, but Christ fulfills us. He mends what we’ve broken, he rights what we’ve wronged, he heals our brokenness, and I think that may be the only thing worth singing of. If we’re going to sing a song about anything, shouldn’t it be about the One who actually created this vast universe? When our anthem rises about this God who created, rescued, and sustains us, instead of a cacophony of competing voices all playing a different tune, we have a chorus of harmonious sound lifting into eternity. We find we can love, not because we see ourselves in someone else, or because we’ve loved ourselves first, but because we have been loved by him first. We find we have joy, not because we’ve achieved our greatest ambition, but because we see his ambition–and his will is always accomplished. We find happiness, not in our own fame or achievement, but in building up others and working for a kingdom that is otherworldly and unfailing. We find we can expend every ounce of ourselves for the very least of this world, not because we have a perfected routine of self-care, or because the world notices and praises us, but because we are filled to the brim with the Spirit of God who can accomplish every good work because he is infinitely loving and he broadens our heart to truly love and care for people.
Please, don’t bother singing The Song of Myself, sing instead to the God who created you, died for you, and is willing to live in you, sing the song of Jesus Christ and you’ll find your voice never grows weary.