Follow your heart. You do you. You are enough.
We take these slogans for granted, but what if this path to personal happiness leads to a dead-end? In Rethink Your Self, Trevin Wax encourages you to rethink some of our society’s most common assumptions about identity and the road to happiness.
Most people define their identity and purpose by first looking in (to their desires), then looking around (to express their uniqueness), and finally—maybe—looking up (to add a spiritual dimension to life). Rethink Your Self proposes a counter-intuitive approach: looking up before looking in.
It’s only when we look up to learn who we were created to be that we discover our true purpose and become our truest selves.
Why did you write this book? What inspired you to write it?
I love asking questions about why people think the way they think and do the things they do. What are the hidden assumptions that people don’t question? In looking at what passes for “common sense” in our society, you can see one overarching message in music, TV shows, books and movies: the purpose of life is to look inside and discover yourself and then express yourself to the world. I wanted to peel back the layers of some of our best-loved slogans like “Be true to yourself” or “Follow your heart” and interrogate them. Does this way of life work? Does it deliver what it promises? Why do other societies reject this way of thinking? Then, I wanted to bring the ancient wisdom of the Bible to bear on this way of life, so that people would see just how countercultural Jesus is, in how he views the meaning and purpose of life.
For whom did you write this book?
I had three people in mind as I wrote:
- the twenty-something college student at the start of their life and preparing for their career, who has some big life decisions ahead and doesn’t want to mess up,
- the thirty-something Christian who wants to grow as a follower of Jesus, who wonders if they’re following the common sense of our society more than the countercultural way that Jesus lays out and
- the person who’s a little older and has experienced setbacks and disappointment in life, who wonders if all the talk about “chasing your dreams” and taking charge of your destiny is good advice after all and who is ready to rethink their assumptions.
Why is this an important topic right now?
We’re more formed by our society than we realize. We assume things to be true of the world simply because that’s what everyone else seems to think. We swim in cultural waters that are always flowing toward this “be true to yourself” perspective. We need to be more aware of how easy it is to go with the flow, and then be challenged to rethink ourselves and to have the courage to swim upstream as we seek to follow Jesus.
Talk about the role of social media in how we define ourselves. Where do you see our culture headed in terms of identity and fulfillment, especially as we are so heavily influenced by social media?
If the purpose of life is to discover who you are and then express your unique self to the world, then social media makes it easier than ever to put yourself “on display,” so to speak. Social media makes it easier for us to define and redefine ourselves and to craft the image we want others to see. It makes “identity” more permeable, subject to change and easily reinvented. The problem, of course, is that this display so often feels phony, and the acclamation we get online rings hollow, because we feel like we’re putting on a mask through our social media presence. Even worse, sometimes we can get lost in the social media vision of our identity, to the point we don’t even know who we truly are anymore. Social media exacerbates the problem we have of feeling like our identities aren’t centered or stable.
Describe the three ways of defining self from the book. What does it mean to “Look In, Look Around, and Look Up”?
These three approaches to life are determined by what gets priority. How do you determine who you are and what your purpose in life is?
The “Look In” approach says to start with yourself. You do the hard work of looking in, to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. You then look around for friends and colleagues who will support the version of yourself you choose. And then, if you feel like you need a spiritual dimension to your life, you may look up to God or a higher power in order to have something more transcendent to add to your life. This is the dominant way of thinking in our society today.
The “Look Around” approach says to start with the people around you. You look around to your community to tell you who you are and what your purpose of life is. Then, you look up to the sacred order that connects you to the people around you and the ancestors who have gone before you. Finally, you look inside as you come to terms with the person you are, in relation to the community you belong to. This is the dominant way of thinking in other parts of the world and has been dominant for most people throughout history.
The “Look Up” approach says to start with God. You look up first in order to see what God says about you and to better understand his divine design. Looking up prioritizes the transcendent. God is the one who defines you and your purpose, not you and not your community. Next, you look around to the community of faith that is called to cheer you on, to correct you, to love you as part of the family that looks up as its starting point, not ending point. Finally, you look inside and see how God loves you just as you are, while still planning to make you the best possible version of who you are, as he conforms you into the image of his Son. This is the biblical way of seeing life—God first, others second, yourself third.
What should people do who want to rethink themselves from a biblical perspective? Give two or three practical steps to getting away from the “Look In” and Look Around” approach and embracing the “Look Up” approach.
You won’t get a biblical perspective without the Bible. The reason one of the later chapters in this book is focused on spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer and churchgoing is because we will not be able to counter the “Look In” approach unless we are constantly bringing ourselves back in line with the “Look Up” approach. The problem is, even these spiritual disciplines can drift toward the “Look In” approach; you read the Bible merely for inspiration in your quest to define yourself, or you pray to God as just a helper when you need him or you go to church to be affirmed by others in whatever life you decide to pursue for yourself. What we need are disciplines that are intentionally directed toward keeping our primary focus and priority on God at the center of all things.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope they will begin to recognize the “be true to yourself” message in all sorts of media and entertainment and politics whenever they see it. I also hope they will better understand how the Bible challenges this perspective with something so much better and more soul-satisfying. I hope readers will see Jesus for who he is, come to love him for being so much better than what the world has to offer and follow him with increasing passion and devotion.
an excerpt from Rethink Your Self
I assume you’re not reading this book because you want me to tell you everything you want to hear, or because you want me to reaffirm everything you already believe to be true. With a title like Rethink Your Self, you’ve probably picked up this book for one of two reasons.
The first is that you may be facing some important decisions and you want to get them right. You want to be the best version of yourself you can be, and you want to fulfill whatever calling you feel is most important in your life. But you know how easy it is to fail to reach your potential, or to fail to discern your purpose in life, and the big decisions down the road frighten you a little (or maybe, a lot!). You want to be authentic and to make choices that align with the deepest part of yourself, but you wonder if the commonsense wisdom you hear everywhere else is adequate in equipping you to find and follow the best path in life.
The second reason you may be interested in this book is because you’re on the other side of some decisions you’ve made in the past, and as you look back at your life, you feel the weight of more than a few regrets. You’ve always gone along with what passes for common sense (be yourself, follow your heart, chase your dreams), but it hasn’t led to the happiness you expected to experience by now. You’re anxious. You’re irritable. You worry you’re missing out on something better. It looks like everyone else has found the secret to the good life, while you’re just muddling through the day trying to keep up appearances. In fact, you wonder if you’ll ever get what you want out of life. In bleaker moments, you wonder if you even know what you want out of life. On the other side of life throwing you some curveballs, you’re not sure you even know what it means to “be yourself” anymore.
Whether you’re the first reader or the second, the point is that you’re ready for self-examination. You sense the need to take a step back, look at your life, take stock of things, and get a fresh perspective on your identity and purpose. You’re ready to examine things you’ve always taken for granted, and you’re wondering if what passes for common sense really makes sense.
If that’s you, you’ve already taken the first step to rethinking yourself. The world needs more people who ask questions no one else thinks about, who doubt the ideas everyone else assumes to be true, and who are courageous enough to become unsettled and uncomfortable in challenging their once-cherished beliefs. It takes guts to put yourself on the table and invite scrutiny about who you are and what your purpose is.
So, as we start our journey together, we’re going to take a closer look at the usual way people in our society think of themselves. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t in this framework for thinking about our purpose. Next, we’ll consider another way of seeing ourselves—what passes for common sense in other cultures and societies. Then, we will consider how the ancient wisdom of the Bible describes our purpose in life and how this perspective challenges the commonsense wisdom of our day.
Even if you don’t consider yourself religious or spiritual, I hope you’ll be open-minded toward that ancient perspective. There’s wisdom to be found there, and it has stood the test of time. Let’s get started.