Fashioning our Self

My latest in the Christian Courier, here.

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A good number of Canadians are sporting new outfits these January days. We are wearing our Christmas gifts – or, perhaps more likely, we are newly-attired from our own post-Christmas bargain shopping. There are a good many of us who got into a new pair of jeans this morning, or put on a crisp new shirt. A cool new knitted hat to top it off?

At one level this exercise of putting on new clothes is innocent enough. It is, after all, a very common experience. But if we were to turn a critical eye toward this practice, our first thought might be that we have bowed to the god of consumerism. We simply do not need these new things, there was nothing wrong with the old, and our financial resources could have been more wisely spent.

This is an entirely reasonable critique of the compulsion to shop in our culture. But perhaps it is worth attending to another dimension of that experience of putting on a new outfit; of checking ourselves out in the mirror. Specifically, we should pay attention to the fact that putting on new clothing is a practice by which we establish our Self. The capital “S” is intended, since its our identity we are talking about.

FullSizeRender 6The clothing we choose to wear – the ties and tights, the jewelry and jackets, the pants, the pumps, the sweaters, the sweater-vests, the blouses and the boots – these have become elements in our individual projection of who we are or want to be. Through our clothing we offer some private and public declaration: “This is me.” Perhaps we come closest to the existential truth of this in that moment of putting on some new item of clothing; and of stopping to stare appreciatively at our reflection.

The sociologist Anthony Giddens points out that in the routines of our daily lives we make all kinds of small decisions. But he also points out that each little decision (what to eat, what to wear, how to function at work, who to meet with later in the day) contributes to the creation of our self. In the modern context (in post-traditional societies), almost everything we do is about self-identity – about the making and re-making of ourselves.

Little wonder, then, that we are an exhausted people. The task of creating the self, of sustaining the self, and of projecting a new self is a never-ending task.

So when it comes to our new January clothing, there may be a moral problem – in that we spend vast amounts of money on things we hardly need. But a deeper and more foundational problem is also at play here. Namely, that we have taken our selves into our own hands, attempting to create ourselves and mold our identity, including through our clothing choices. “I will be this person. Not that person.”

In the best of all worlds we would want to say that those who belong to Christ, and who walk in his way, have their true self in relation to him. Those who are baptized into Jesus Christ have and find their identity in him and with him – are clothed with him. We have been set free from the need to project and establish our own identity in this way. Our true self is a gift we have received.

And yet we seem as tied up with this work of self-creation as anyone else. This is evident even in the moment of our being freshly attired. Almost as soon as we have put on that new blouse or sweater, we are no longer satisfied. Our purchase hasn’t resolved our wish for fulfillment – we haven’t become the person we thought we would. And so the cycle of buying and wearing and discarding and buying continues in our longing to secure our self.

What does it mean for us to receive our self from Christ, and in relation to him? Perhaps it is in resisting the consumeristic spirit, not simply because there is a moral problem (“Did you really need to buy that?!”) but because we recognize the futility of fashioning ourselves anew each season. Contentment in Christ might, in 2018, mean pulling on an old pair of jeans.

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