Dear Tristan: Hold Onto Your Self

Dear Tristan,

Your mom and I have shared these letters to you with friends of ours online, and have had a handful of people share their thoughts – some agreeing and some disagreeing with portions of what we write, Overall, though, in these letters so far, I’ve raised a lot of ideas you might not hear from very many other people – at least not in the way I’m raising them. I tend to be outside the mainstream in a lot of different areas, and when I say things like “obedience is overrated” or “behavior is not the point” or “I want you to learn how to make wise decisions, even if that means you disagree with me sometimes,” those are not the sort of things most people tell their children. They are, nevertheless, what I believe.

So is this: I said yesterday that I believe you were created, as I think we all were, to make real choices about your life. One of the things I think it is important to keep in mind as you make these choices is the importance of being self-centered.

Most of the people who are reading these letters as we share them are probably reading back over that last paragraph to make sure they read it right. They did. I think self-centeredness is an important quality to nurture in oneself in order to engage in healthy relationships with others.

Most people I know think of self-centeredness as a negative quality. They see it as akin to selfishness – engaging in strategies for meeting your needs that end up harming others in the process. I don’t see them as the same thing at all.

I remember a conversation with your mom and some very good friends of ours several years ago soon after we first got married. We were talking about intimacy, and what it means. I gave a fairly commonplace definition that intimacy is knowing another person as deeply as possible. Then your mom said one of the wisest things I think I’ve ever heard her say (which is saying something, given how many wise things I’ve heard her say!) She said, “Intimacy is getting to know yourself as deeply as possible, and then sharing that person fully with another.”

That, to me, is the essence of self-centeredness. Your mom and I have been criticized before as being overly introspective . . . overly focused on our own inner lives. But I think without that focus we would be much less ready and able to offer relationship to you and others at the level we want to do so.

Part of the problem is that our culture idealizes selflessness, particularly in Christian circles such as the ones in which your mom and I grew up.

Here’s the problem. Selflessness is not a Biblical concept. Self-sacrifice certainly is, but look at some of the Scripture passages people use to promote selflessness.

Luke 6:31 – Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Philippians 2:4 – Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Galatians 5:15 – For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Aside from teaching the virtue of caring for others, each of these verses has in common the admonition to care for yourself!

In the first passage, you can’t do to others as you would have them do to you, unless you first know how you desire and deserve to be treated by others.

The second passage urges you are urged to look after the interests of others in addition to your own, not to the exclusion of your own.

The third passage, I think, captures it best. It is a simple fact that you can’t love your neighbor as you love yourself, unless you love yourself.

But I remember sitting in Sunday School classes when I was a very young child, singing songs that went like this one:

Jesus and Others and You
What a wonderful way to spell JOY
Jesus and Others and You
In the life of each girl and each boy


“J” is for Jesus, for He has first place
“O” is for Others we meet face to face
“Y” is for You, in whatever you do,
Put yourself third and spell JOY

This strikes me as pretty poor advice when it’s taught, as it was to me, as a universal truth to be applied to every situation and relationship. Of course there are times when we put others first. There are times in your short life when I’ve met your needs to the exclusion of my own, and there will probably be many more.

But that’s not sustainable all the time.

Next week, you’re going with your mom on your first airplane ride. When you get situated on the plane, an annoying announcer voice will come on and instruct all of you on what to do in the case of an emergency. You won’t be able to understand what he or she is saying, but one of the things they’ll do is talk about if there is a breach in the cabin of the airplane and all the air gets sucked out. If that happens, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling of the cabin to make sure you can all still breathe. The announcer will tell your mom and anybody else travelling with small children to put their own masks on first, before helping their children.

That’s because, if your mom puts the mask on you first, she might pass out before she’s able to get her own mask on, and then if something happens to your mask, both of you would be in trouble.

And I think it’s the same way in life. You can sacrifice for others. You can even give up your life for others, as I would for you or your mom in a heartbeat if needed. But the one thing that is dangerous to give up is your self.

I know. I tried. I spent most of my life being everything I thought others wanted me to be. In college, especially, I was the ever-present shoulder to cry on. I was the chauffeur making myself available to anyone and everyone to take them places or run their errands for them. I was the one who had to be helping everybody with everything, to have my fingers in every pie. I had a burning need to be . . . useful.

What I ended up being was used, and used up. I was there for anyone who needed someone, but I wasn’t taking care of myself. In the end I wound up severely depressed and on the verge of giving up on life all together. I’d invested so much of my self in other lives that I didn’t have anything left for my own, and It took your mom and another couple of very dear friends who were willing to invest in my life to pull me through that period.

As you grow up, I want to teach you to care deeply for others, but at the same time I want to teach you to hold onto your self. Share your heart with others, but don’t give up who you are in the process. Invest time in others, but make sure you’re taking some time out for yourself. Give your possessions to others, but not to the extent that you’re unable to meet your own needs or the needs of those for whom you are responsible.

That’s what it really comes down to. There are two sets of needs in any relationship. We do the relationship injustice when we only consider one set of needs, whether our or the other person’s. If we only consider our own needs, that’s not much of a relationship. If we only consider the other person’s needs, we don’t leave ourselves with anything to offer them.

You’ll hear a lot of people talk about Christ’s example – about how He gave up His position at the right hand of God to come and sacrifice Himself for us. And all that is true. Earlier, though, I quoted Philippians 2:4 as one of the verses people pull out to talk about self-sacrifice. That passage continues by talking about Christ’s sacrifice, and what it says is not that He sacrificed His self – His being, His essence – but that He sacrificed His reputation. He gave up the glory that was His due by virtue of the fact that He is God, to come and live as a man. But He did not give up being God. He could only effect the redemption of fallen humanity by sacrificing Himself as God.

That’s the example I hope for you to follow . . . give and give and give, as much as is in your heart to give. But do not give up your self. Stay self-centered, in the sense that you remain the main character in your own life story. For when your life story becomes about somebody else, you’re left with nothing to give to those you care about, or to anyone else, for that matter.



Filed under Things intended for my children that the rest of you get to read too

2 Responses to Dear Tristan: Hold Onto Your Self

  1. Pingback: The Unedited Life » Blog Archive » Dear Tristan: Cultivate Empathy

  2. Pingback: Dear Tristan: on feelings and needs : heidi

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