I am sure that everyone has heard of the dangers of a low self-esteem. In fact, it seems to be considered one of the greatest challenges teenagers face today. Self esteem is greatly valued by many both inside and outside of the Catholic Church; it is smiled upon by laity, religious, priests, bishops, and cardinals, employees, employers, students, and teachers. This “value” of self-esteem is quite universal and therefore a significant obstacle to the college-bound generation.
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, self-esteem is, “a feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities: (1) a confidence and self-satisfaction in oneself; (2) self-conceit.” The synonyms are listed as, “ego, pridefulness, self-regard, self-respect,” and the antonyms are, “humbleness, humility, modesty” (Merriam-Webster, “Self-Esteem”). When someone is overly confident in himself, he is in danger of seeing himself as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good. This is the original sin: trying to set oneself above God. Self-esteem is the sin of pride in disguise as humility. According to Fr. Tanquerey’s The Spiritual Life:
“Pride is a deviation of that legitimate sentiment which prompts us to prize what is good in us, and to seek the esteem of others in the measure in which this is useful. … We can, then, define pride as an inordinate love of self, which causes us to consider ourselves, explicitly or implicitly, as our first beginning and last end. It is a species of idolatry, for we make gods of ourselves…” (Tanquerey, 393).
Pride skews our vision so that we believe a warped truth about ourselves: that we are good through our own work and by our own merit. But we cannot attain beauty and goodness on our own; we must receive it from the Maker of beauty and goodness. We cannot rely upon ourselves because we cannot even take our next breath without the help of God. Furthermore, it is by the capital sin of pride, says Fr. Tanquerey, that, “…we exaggerate our personal qualities” (Tanquerey, 394). G. K. Chesterton stated in his work, Orthodoxy, that:
…believing in [one]self is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief… (Chesterton, 14).
In contrast, Father Tanquerey defines “humility” as: “…a supernatural virtue, which, through the self-knowledge it imparts, inclines us to reckon ourselves at our true worth and to seek self-effacement and contempt.” (Tanquerey, 531). It is humility that allows us to see and acknowledge true good in ourselves as well as the Source of that good: God. It is through humility that we are able to acknowledge our defects and ask God for aid to help us to be rid of these for His greater glory. It is through the virtue of humility that we see in ourselves what is of God and what is of man. All goodness comes from God and all defects come from man (Aquinas, 2a 2ae, qu. 161, art. 1, ad 5). When we see beauty in ourselves and in others, we should give glory to God, not to ourselves. It is precisely because pride is appearing to be humility that self-esteem has been so widely accepted throughout our culture.
The deadly sweet poison of self-esteem has infiltrated the media, those in positions of authority within the Church, and many who look to these leaders for guidance. Barney, a show for children from 2-5 years of age, instructs children to believe in themselves; Barney tells them that if they do, they can learn anything at all. Hannah Montana, a Disney Channel show that targeted an older audience, insisted that Miley Cyrus grew to fame and fortune as a rock star by believing in herself, when in fact, success is a direct result of hours of rehearsing, taking lessons, studying, and plenty of hard work. Other teen pop stars such as Jessica Jarrell also encourage growth in self-esteem (Tishgart). The vast number of popular and best-selling self-help books attests to the fact that the view of self-esteem as a virtue has truly infiltrated the culture.
Self esteem is an issue not only in the secular world, but also among the members of the One True Church. BishopDiLorenzo, diocese of Richmond, gave a homily on the topic of self-esteem for both the yearly Diocesan Youth conference and also for the homily at a Confirmation Mass at my parish. His Excellency said that, “The greatest enemy teenagers have to face is low self-esteem” (Niell), and that by believing in themselves, they can go far and do anything. In his homily at the Diocesan Youth Conference, after telling, “the story of a young man named Homer who grew up in a coal mining town in West Virginia where most of the residents faced a bleak future, Bishop Di Lorenzo gave a happy ending to the story. Homer persevered despite tremendous odds and became a rocket scientist. He encouraged the teens present. ‘Homer had inspiration in spite of people endangering low self-esteem…. You’ve got to adjust your thinking and avoid an all or nothing mindset,’ BishopDiLorenzo said” (Niell). Although it is good to work for lofty goals, we should not shift the focus to self and accomplish our aspirations through pride.
Matthew Kelly, a nation-wide speaker who has been featured in NY Times, is known throughout many Catholic parishes for his work, Rediscovering Catholicism. In “What is your mission?”, Matthew Kelly declares that, “Self-esteem is essential to enduring happiness,” (Kelly, 195). A little earlier on, he writes, “Focusing on what we are here to give is the path to discovering our mission in life and gaining a healthy self-esteem” (Kelly, 194). The Church, Matthew Kelly implies, is primarily a place where you can, “become the best version of yourself,” feel good about yourself, experience the sacraments, and impress others with your actions. “We cry out to God, saying, Show us how to find the happiness our hearts are hungry for, and God replies, Walk with me, be all I created you to be, become the best-version-of-yourself” (Kelly, 78). The problem here is that the focus is skewed; Kelly puts forth the notion that improving ourselves for our own sake and to impress others should be our goal in life. He also states that, “For the most part, [ordinary people embracing Christianity] commit themselves to doing simple things spectacularly well and with great love, and that intrigues people. We need to intrigue the people of our times in the same ways. Whom does your life intrigue?” (Kelly, 21). Later on, he writes: “We should consider why problems occur in our lives and in the life of the Church. Do problems occur so that we can solve them? I don’t think so. We are not here to solve the problems; the problems are here to solve us. … When we approach any problem in the right way we become better-versions-of-ourselves” (Kelly, 55). The danger in accepting these statements which focus the goal on self-improvement is that the reader’s view of Holy Mother Church shifts from the means given us by Christ for the salvation of mankind to a self-help clinic.
After considering the very devious nature and the widespread deception of self-esteem, we must now consider how we can extract the self-inflicted poison and heal the damage that has been done. We must pray, for prayer changes us: “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” (law of prayer, law of the creed, law of life). When our lives change, others see this and will ask themselves, “Why?” They might even confront us with this question in some way or another, and it is then that we must, “always be ready to give a reason for our hope” (1 Peter 3:15). Even when it seems as if all is lost or nothing is making a difference, we must never cease to pray for them, to be Christ to them, and to trust in the mercy and power of God.
First, we must pray. Because it is a fault and the deadly sin which sent our first parents out of the Garden of Eden, we need to pray that we and others might recognize the true identity of self-esteem. We must make reparation to God and pray the Rosary every day, receive the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion often. It is only with the help of God that we can even begin to combat this; the only way to combat the assertion that we don’t need God is to realize our dependence on Him all the more, and beg Him to reveal this to us. We must pray for the virtue of humility not only for ourselves, but also for others.
Second, we must change our lives. As God changes us through prayer, we must let Him change our minds, hearts, and even the way we live. We must not only know that this is pride, but we must allow these beliefs to transform our actions: we must constantly combat it with humility. Humility is truth: it is realizing our true dependence upon God, not lying to ourselves or to others; realizing our true worth through the eyes of God, our Creator. Humanity is one of the greatest God’s creations, as such we have our true worth because we are made by him. We did not deserve to be redeemed, but He loves us so infinitely as to do everything possible to bring us back to Him. We must tell the truth in all aspects of our life so that we may live in the truth. We must be children of the light, seeing ourselves quite clearly, rather than children of darkness, where we cannot see ourselves or others. Pride is the root of all sins, so we must combat all of our sins and be victorious over them by the help of God. If we want to conquer pride, we must accept the humiliations we are sent daily. If we want to conquer pride, we must never give up the good fight to conquer self-love. In short, to defeat pride, we must become saints.
Third, we must allow God to use us as His instruments to change others. Through even just one willing person, God can change the entire world. If we have been given a gift from God, it has been given for the greater good of our neighbor just as much as it has been given for our own benefit. Once we have been educated in the Faith, we have the responsibility to teach others. One way to do this is by obedience, thereby setting a good example for others. We should also take leadership positions in our community and in our parish (where appropriate and in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Church) and stand firm for the Truth, encouraging others in the Faith. By learning, we become increasingly humble, being better able to see the truth and the way to live by it. When we teach others, we help them to make strides in the virtue of humility! We must always allow God to speak through us to be a light to the nations; “…a city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
Guest Writer: Catherine O.
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990. Print.
Kelly, Matthew. Rediscover Catholicism: A Spiritual Guide to Living with Passion & Purpose.
S.l.: Beacon Pub., 2010. Print.
Neill, Steve. “Diocesan youth learn how to handle low self-esteem.” The Catholic Virginian. n.p.,
1 April 2013. Web. 13 February 2014. <http://www.catholicvirginian.org/archive/2013/2013vol88iss11/pages/profile.html>.
“Self-esteem.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
Tanquerey, Adolphe, S.S., D.D., and Herman Branderis, S.S., A.M. The Spiritual Life: A Treatise
On Ascetical and Mystical Theology. Rockford, IL: Tan and, 2000. Print.
Tishgart, Sierra. “Singer Jessica Jarrell on Dove’s Movement for Self-Esteem.” Teen Vogue.
n.p., n.d. Web. 13 February 2014.<http://www.teenvogue.com/my-life/profiles/2012-06/jessica-jarrell-dove-self-esteem/>.