Our Candidates, Ourselves

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Following last night’s defeat in the Indiana primary, Ted Cruz has officially ended his 2016 presidential campaign. And even though Sanders beat out Clinton in the Hoosier state, his Democratic opponent appears to be on a clear path to securing her party’s nomination.  It would seem that we are finally nearing the (welcome) end to a particularly contentious primary season.

On the Republican side, the field at one point swelled to 19 candidates, most of whom did not hesitate to insult one another when it helped their own cause. Although things started out more civil on the Democratic side, Sanders and Clinton have proven increasingly willing to attack one another as the primaries wore on. In recent months presidential candidates have slung a colorful array of insults at one another including “jerk,” “pathological liar,” “serial philanderer,” and “spoiled brats without properly functioning brains.” Their vitriol has been matched if not surpassed by some of their supporters in the crowd and back at home.

With every new election cycle, people lament the negative tone of the candidates’ campaigns. However, there is relatively little reflection on what gives rise to and sustains this toxic campaign culture election year to election year. Why do political contests inspire such passion, even downright nastiness? Why does one person’s preference of political candidates lead them to attack other candidates and fellow citizens with such fury?

NPR’s “This American Life” aired a story a couple of months ago that may provide some insight into the matter. The story was one of two included in an episode about people whose actions defy common expectations entitled “That’s One Way to Do It.” It centers around an articulate, charismatic high school student named Alex Chalgren. Alex lives in South Carolina with his two adoptive parents, who are both devout evangelical Christians. Like most people in his community, Alex is politically conservative. What distinguishes Alex is his enthusiasm for Donald Trump and the fact that he is the South Carolina Director for Students for Trump.

Also, he’s black and gay.

This is how Alex fits within the theme of this “This American Life” episode. His dedication to Trump’s candidacy raises the question, Why would a black, gay man fervently support a candidate who has made overtly racist and anti-gay statements? Zoe Chace, the journalist who interviewed Alex, came up with this theory: “He was using Trump to reconcile two very irreconcilable things about himself—deeply conservative, super-gay. Trump, for some reason, is Alex’s safe place.” When Chace shared her theory with Alex in a follow-up interview, he responded, “Yeah… I guess you would say that.”

Although Alex is different than most on account of the perplexing disconnect between his political allegiances and certain aspects of his identity, he is no different than the rest of us insofar as we all seek identity markers—things outside ourselves that express who we are, or perhaps who we want to be. This struggle for self-definition is something I have observed in my college students and the dorm residents I have gotten to know in my capacity as Resident Minister. It is also a struggle I have grappled with myself.

College is often regarded as a time for self-exploration. While this language tends to evoke images of joining clubs, pondering the meaning of life, and new social and romantic encounters, the reality is that for many students the collegiate process of identity formation is more of a trial by fire than a series of whimsical new experiences. For today’s students, especially at prestigious universities like the one where I teach, the pressures to present the right image are legion, and they can be crushing. By virtue of attending a competitive university, many feel compelled to project the appearance of effortless perfection lest they fail to measure up to their peers. Driven by aspirations to high-profile careers, they feel pressure to present themselves as brilliant, accomplished young entrepreneurs when (if they are allowed to be honest with themselves) most are still figuring it out what they want for their lives. All this is to say nothing of the constant demands of carefully curating an online profile and managing a paralyzing fear of saying something—anything—that might offend someone else.

I do not make these observations of undergraduate life with the least bit of condescension. I know personally what a struggle it can be to attain and maintain integrity in one’s identity amidst the throng of voices telling us who we ought to be. For me this struggle reached a fever pitch not so long ago.

About this time last year I completed my doctoral degree and was actively (read frantically) seeking a full-time teaching position. Even though earning a Ph.D. is certainly something to be proud of (and I was), I could not help but feel that completing my degree was a hollow victory if it did not lead to a faculty appointment. A tenure-track appointment is still generally regarded as the gold standard for success in the academic world. It comes with a readily recognizable title and status that indicates to other academics that one is a legitimate scholar. This status was my Donald Trump, my perfectly curated social media persona, my safe space. For me it held a powerful allure and an assurance that, should I obtain it, I would become and be recognized as the person I yearned to be.

However, as is the case with any external marker—whether it be one’s political affiliation or online persona—this assurance was an empty one. The desire to define one’s identity by such external markers is a persistent one, perhaps even necessary, but it can also be a great temptation. The temptation lies in the fact that we can come to identify so fully with a political candidate or a job title that we lose sight of who we are most essentially.

I believe that this is what is happening when we witness such deep-seated antagonism among political candidates and among their supporters. If we stake our whole identity on a particular person or issue and someone challenges that person or issue, we react defensively because at that point it is not just an attack on an issue—it’s an attack on us. When people feel personally threatened, that’s when things start getting nasty.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, makes a distinction between primary and secondary identity that my students have found extremely helpful in sorting out these kinds of issues. According to Ignatius, our primary identity is that of beloved sons and daughters of God. Any other way of identifying ourselves—Republican, Catholic, star student, tenured professor, friend, mother—is a secondary identity. Inevitably we will incorporate these secondary identities into our self-image, and that is well and good. However, problems arise when we confuse a secondary identity for our primary identity. In other words, when we cease to think of ourselves first and foremost as beloved children of God and others as our brothers and sisters in Christ, it becomes all too easy to feel threatened by those who differ from us and to be divided by those differences.

Looking back, I recognize this sort of identity confusion at the root of my anxiety about getting a job. I felt that if I did not secure a university post I would have failed in some way; I would have been less of a person somehow. I was looking to a job title for my source of self-worth when I should have been looking to my Creator. That is, I was allowing a secondary identity to usurp my true primary identity as a beloved child of God. Only when the position I coveted eluded me was I compelled to look deeper for a more enduring source of self-worth.

In the end, I was blessed to be offered the sort of faculty position I desired. However, the greater blessing may lie in the fact that it was not offered to me sooner. Had that happened, I may very well still be looking to the wrong things for my sense of self-worth. The challenge for me now is not to fall back into that same deluded thinking.

We all yearn for the security of knowing who we are. If we have staked our identity on the wrong thing, we can devolve into shallower version of ourselves when our sense of self is threatened by a political opponent, a social rival, or unemployment. However, if we recognize ourselves for who we truly are—beloved daughters and sons of God—no confrontation or circumstance can shake that sense of core identity. When we are who God calls us to be, we are freed up to give ourselves and others the love we deserve, not because we have earned it, but because God loved us first.


RGC3: What is a Man? Redefining Male Success

Millennial editor Robert Christian has a new article at Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal. He writes:

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I abhor the creature who uses the expression that ‘a man must be a man’ in order to excuse his being a vile and vicious man.” Certain vices and failings remain closely identified with existing definitions of manhood. Men seek power and control. They view women as objects to be acquired and used. Material success defines their worth and virtue. Men are free from the weakness of emotional dependence. A ‘real man’ is rational and self-interested, without pity for those who cannot or will not stand on their own two feet. Clothes make the man (or his car or house or corner office). Men use violence to protect what is theirs.

But do we really want a society full of emotionally vacuous men who dehumanize others, define their sense of self-worth based on superficial metrics, and turn selfishness into a virtue? For the Christian, the obvious answer is “no.” But even for the average American, this description of what constitutes a ‘real man’ would likely be viewed as far from ideal. And it is clear that changing social norms, brought on by the empowerment of women and socioeconomic changes, among other factors, are redefining what it means to be a successful man (which is not to say that the aforementioned view of manhood was ever undisputed). But if these changes do not purposefully reject the individualism, materialism, consumerism, chauvinism, and the preeminence of self-interest that has made the common definition of male success so incompatible with genuine virtue, the gap between the two will persist and men will be pressured to conform to social expectations that divert them from living lives of genuine virtue, joy, and fulfillment.

Men are not cavemen nor are we devoid of free will. If we value the authentic flourishing of men and the people around them, we need to define success differently and develop social norms that reflect this redefinition….

While some may prefer the traditions of past decades when it comes to gender roles and defining success, we are entering a new era. One can respond with nostalgia, but a better way forward would be to reimagine how we translate Christ’s call to love in today’s world, a perennial challenge.

The full article can be read here.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Hard questions we’re not asking Pope Francis by John Allen: “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes. The pope had his reasons, including fear for Syria’s Christians in the aftermath of regime change. Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

The Changing U.S. Labor Force by Anna Sutherland: “Whatever the cause of unions’ decline, however, the future of work in America may be one of low wages and erratic schedules (both of which are hard on families) unless policy-makers find some other way to bolster the power of labor.”

The Neo-Conservative Imagination: An Interview with Patrick Deneen, Part III by Artur Rosman: “I don’t want to paint a picture of utopian bliss in Germany—of course, that’s far from the case—but we ought to look at specific practices in countries such as Germany to begin to think about how better to avoid some of our wrenching instability and how we might better conceive an economy to support family and community.”

Selfie esteem: Body image in a digital age by Meghan Murphy-Gill: “The Catholic Church has a counterpoint to this seemingly superficial approach to image: Humans are the imago Dei, created in the image of God. This alone is the source of a person’s value, not how well she applies eyeshadow or whether her selfies show a glowing girl with a great smile.”

Synod on the Family, Part I by Michael Sean Winters: “The Francis effect is only possible because people are truly hungry for the Gospel and a more humane civilization. No civilization can long remain healthy if its families are not healthy, and the remedy must be found, first and foremost, by placing the bonds of family and society – and the bond of faith, that binds us to Jesus Christ – in their true, liberating promise and pointing out that the autonomy the modern world promises is actually a grim form of self-chosen slavery.”

Everyday saints by Kira Dault: “Those who have come before us—not just the great men and women with their huge footprints, but the mothers and fathers, the children, the friends lost to us—mark the course. In their examples they leave breadcrumbs to follow, clues for how to become the kind of people we want to be.”

The Message of Mercy by Walter Kasper: “So, canon law is not against the Gospel, but the Gospel is against a legalistic understanding of canon law. Canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other.”

Monument Seeks to End Silence on Killings of the Disabled by the Nazis by Melissa Eddy: “The first to be singled out for systematic murder by the Nazis were the mentally ill and intellectually disabled. By the end of World War II, an estimated 300,000 of them had been gassed or starved, their fates hidden by phony death certificates and then largely overlooked among the many atrocities that were to be perpetrated in Nazi Germany in the years to follow. Now, they are among the last to have their suffering publicly acknowledged. On Tuesday, the victims of the direct medical killings by the Nazis were given their own memorial in the heart of Berlin.”

An unspoken truth about teens who flee the Catholic church by Jennifer Mertens: “Young people must be valued as active, respected and fully engaged members of our faith communities. Teens long to be taken seriously, to be heard, considered and included. As adults, we do not possess or control the living revelation of Christ. We journey together with our youth.”

Encounters with a drinking culture in college by Carlos Mesquita: “I asked some of my friends why they drank to excess, and while some just said they enjoyed it, many responded that they were drinking to forget something or to relieve stress. They described trying to avoid or escape some part of themselves.”

The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok by Franklin Foer: “Only a strong federal government can curb the autocratic tendencies burbling across the country. Libertarians worry about the threat of local tyrants, too, but only abstractly. In practice, they remain so fixated on the perils of Washington that they rigidly insist on devolving power down to states, cities, and towns—the very places where their nightmares are springing to life.”

The Catholic casino conundrum by Mathew Schmalz: “The message was simple: You can gamble, but take it easy. Do so temperately — within appropriate limits….But given Pope Francis’ strong stand on our obligations to those in need, it is difficult to see how to justify gambling of any kind, since the money that we might so cavalierly wager does not belong to us alone.”