Saturday, November 22, 2003

Thought of the Day: negative self-affirmation
Do we define ourselves by what we are not rather than by what we are? When we reassure ourselves or present ourselves to others, do we use more negative statements than positive ones? For example, I'm much more certain about not being a Republican than I am about being a Democrat. I'm also more certain about not being pro-choice than I am about being pro-life (that is, I'm more unimpressed by arguments that the life of the fetus should have no legal protection outside its mother than I am sure in which cases abortion should be allowed). If I were to make a political platform for myself, I'd want to do it by distancing myself from positions I think are stupid more than I would want to make a list of what I endorse. Similarly, when I tell people I'm a Christian I try to find a way to insert that I'm not one of those simple-minded Bible-thumpers just waiting to preach to you the moment you let your guard down. And when I tell people I'm a journalist, I try to emphasize that I don't want to be just a reporter assembling quotes from press conferences.

Maybe it's easiest for us to tell others what we are not because that's how we communicate to ourselves. We tell ourselves upon seeing a flake, or a dork, or a jerk: I'm not like that. In fact, this was the prayer of the vain Pharisee in Jesus' parable: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector." (General rule: don't begin your prayers with "God, I thank you that I am not...") Sermons on this passage always talk about humility, but maybe part of the point of the parable is that the tax collector was healthier because he wasn't busy talking about what he wasn't. He wasn't in denial. Instead, he was being straight with himself and with God about who he was, how broken he was: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Maybe one of the routes to healthy self-perception is to make positive statements about our negative attributes.

Previous Thought: is a person's life a story?

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