To Be Another Person

In a fascinating article this month in The Atlantic, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,”[1] Neal Gabler identified himself among the 47 percent of Americans who could not cover an unexpected $400 expense without resorting to debt or to selling something. He went on to describe the “financial impotence” of “a sizable minority or a slim majority of Americans” who “are on thin ice financially.”

Gabler artfully wove financial and economic statistics and studies throughout with personal anecdotes and appraisals of the source of the problem.  While accepting personal responsibility for his own financial situation, his conclusion ultimately moved the source of both his problem and his hope, to the larger national economy.

But optimism won’t negate the fact that wages continue to stagnate; that the personal savings rate remains low; and that a middle-class life seems increasingly hard to maintain. . . . I try to hang on to hope myself while still being a realist. Yet hope doesn’t come easily anymore, even in a nation of dreamers and strivers and idealists. What so many of us have been suffering for so many years may just seem like a rough patch. But it is far more likely to be our lives.

While reading the article, I was stopped cold by one introspective paragraph in particular. In this one paragraph, I believe both that Gabler nailed the source of the problem, for himself and for the nation, and, sadly, that he did not recognize the impact of what he wrote.

Choice, often in the face of ignorance, is certainly part of the story. Take me. I plead guilty. I am a financial illiterate, or worse—an ignoramus. I don’t offer that as an excuse, just as a fact. I made choices without thinking through the financial implications—in part because I didn’t know about those implications, and in part because I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive. I chose to become a writer, which is a financially perilous profession, rather than do something more lucrative. I chose to live in New York rather than in a place with a lower cost of living. I chose to have two children. I chose to write long books that required years of work, even though my advances would be stretched to the breaking point and, it turned out, beyond. We all make those sorts of choices, and they obviously affect, even determine, our bottom line. But, without getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.

The alternative is to be another personTo be another person. For Gabler, being who he is, he could choose nothing other than to overspend, to live above his means, to do things the way he wanted to do them.  According to Gabler, and, I fear, according to many Americans, including many Christians, his very personhood is defined by and perhaps also the result of his choices.  His identity consists of living a certain way in a certain place with a certain level of possessions, what today is called a certain lifestyle.  This sort of lifestyle finds its home in materialism, a belief that all that is or, at least, all that matters, is to be found in this physical world.  What Gabler does not realize, or at least he does not admit, is that he already is another person, one trapped in his choices, regulated by consequences that are beyond his control.

When I equate my person and my identity with my desires, what happens to me when I find my desires to be out of reach? And when I find that my choices were destructive rather than constructive toward the future I desired, my very being is called into question, not just my desires.  Then, one day I will discover, not that I would be another person if I make different choices, but that my choices already have made me another person against my will, against my choice.[2]

Even the wisest of the wise cannot foresee the outcome of their choices and will lurch in directions that prove perilous and ruinous to their intended goals.  Even the strongest of the strong cannot live unaffected by the unintended consequences of their decisions.  Defining my personhood by my choices over 10, 15, or 20 years or more will only lead to hollowness and soullessness, much more so if I look at my choices over a lifetime.  This is the dirty secret of materialism of which no one ever speaks.  It will make of you “another person,” one which you never intended to become.

Just as a ship anchored to itself will drift, so will a person anchored to himself or to his own choices.  The ship must be anchored outside itself in order to remain steadfast, and I must be anchored outside myself lest I be tossed about upon the waves and the vagaries of my own choices.

An eternal soul needs an eternal anchor.  The only eternal anchor is the One “who is and who was and who is to come.”[3]  This One is “the way, the truth, and the life.”[4]  He is the One who “loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  In Him, we “may have life, and . . . may have it more abundantly.”[5]  And when we serve Him, we can “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”[6]

And in the Lord, in submission to Him, we can be who we are, regardless of the outcome of our choices, for He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,”[7] and through Him we “are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken.”[8]  His name is I AM,[9] and we know Him as Jesus.[10]  In I AM, I never have to become “another person.”  In I AM, I always can be truly who I am; my choices can arise from who I am in Him; and I can rejoice with Paul that “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”[11]

[1] Let me encourage you to read: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/my-secret-shame/476415/

[2] Gabler exposes this truth. “And for many of us—we silent sufferers who cannot speak about our financial tribulations—it is our lives, not just our bank accounts, that are at risk.”

[3] Revelation 1:4, 8

[4] John 14:6; See Hebrews 6:19-20

[5] John 10:10

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:58

[7] Hebrews 13:8

[8] Hebrews 12:28a

[9] Exodus 3:14

[10] John 8:58

[11] 1 Corinthians 15:10

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