They’re based on different ways to answer the fundamental question, “Who am I?”:
- What I do: If we are what we do, then when we do good things, and are a success, we’re very happy! But what if we fail, or stop doing good things for awhile? What if things don’t go our way and we can’t do good things? Then we lose our source of happiness.
- What other people think of me: If people praise what I do, if people love my book, if people think I’m good looking … I can be proud and happy. But what if they say something mean about me? What if they don’t like my book, if no one cares very much about me? Then I’m unhappy, even with a small remark.
- What I have: If I have a nice house and car, or lots of friends, or family that loves me … I’m very happy. But what if I lose those possessions, or my friends move away, or my family members die? Then I’m not happy.
As you can see, these three sources of happiness and contentment … they cover the vast majority of ways we see ourselves. We want to be a success, we want people to think well of us, we want to have friends and nice things. Everything we do online, from Facebook and Instagram to doing work … these are usually based on one of those things, because we’re worried about what people think of us, or we want to do good work, or have friends.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do good work or having friends … but if these things are the source of who you are, they are fickle sources. You’ll be great one day, and not so great the next.
If someone is doing better than you, you’ll be down. If someone is living a better life than you, traveling and partying and living glamorously, you’ll be down. If people don’t think well of you, or say something a bit spiteful, you’ll be down. This happens to us all the time, if we’re honest.
Nouwen’s answer is to redefine yourself as God’s beloved, which is definitely a more stable source of contentment. But what if you’re not religious?
I think the idea of finding a more constant source of contentment by redefining who you are is a very useful one. I’ve been experimenting with it for a little while, and it makes a huge difference.
How do you redefine who you are? This can take a lot of soul-searching, but here’s my answer for myself: I’m love and compassion. That’s who I am. That doesn’t mean I always respond with love to others — I’m human and certainly not perfect. I don’t always live up to this, but I feel that it’s true.
Here’s a secret, though: even if you don’t know who you are, try pretending. It still works, as weird as that may seem.
A few examples:
- You notice someone else online doing something cool, and you feel some insecurity because you’re not doing anything as cool as that. Then you realize that you’re defining yourself in terms of what you do, what others think of you, and what you have … and instead you think of yourself as “love” (for example). Suddenly, the need to prove yourself and do something as cool as that evaporates, and instead you can just be content with who you already are.
- You notice yourself running to distractions instead of working on your awesome project. Then you realize that this is because you are afraid of failure, afraid of not succeeding. You’re defining yourself by what you do. Then you consciously think of yourself as “love”, and realize that it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, because you’ll be “love” either way. You can just act, with the confidence that you are already amazing.
- You walk into a room of strangers, and start to feel insecure about what they think of you. Then you redefine who you are as “love”, and realize that you will be that no matter what they think of you. You can smile and exude love, and be confident about who you are.
These examples work even if you aren’t really sure who you are. You can just pretend to be “love and compassion”, and you’ll still feel the insecurity and fears and distractions melt away.