I had desired to write on this very subject, but for various reasons I had been unable to summon a discourse sufficient to the obstacle. This thing we call 'individuality', which is both by the just and unjust at times extolled and at other times denounced, and likewise with self-esteem. The 'self' it is said, or the thing which is 'selfish' is the source of all evils; but on the other hand, we must desire to save ourselves, it is said, if we are to be rescued. This is a source of all manner of confusion for men and women alike of our time, being that 'rugged individualism' may provoke a reaction towards 'collectivism', both of which may easily be shown to be actually 'anti-individual' in the sense of what we really are as individuals.
Firstly, to be an individual simply means that we are the smallest unit of something, which in our case happens be the human nature. In this sense 'individual' is a lesser, but still not unimportant variant of 'person'. Individual does not on its own have a connotation of connectedness or disconnection, and so we are free to fill in the innuendo with our experience.
The self, then, is 'what I am'. If I know myself to be an individual, that is, a human being and a person, then this is 'myself'. The difficulty of comprehending this is obvious, the looking glass cannot examine itself except in a mirror, and there is no 'transparent eye' - sadly for dear Emerson.
The selfish tendency then can be described as the tendency towards getting or desiring things which benefit the self. This then becomes a discourse on what we know of the parts of this self - take for instance my human nature. Within it, as a post-lapsarian creature, are the works of two wills or desires, as Paul notes, a fleshly one and a spiritual one. My gnomic will, that which is set up and exists to discern whether a desire is sensual and evil or spiritual and good (which distinction exists only in context to my desires) is a manifestation of my natural will - my free will - which exists because I have these contradicting tendencies.
Therefore, a selfish desire can be said to be one of two things - firstly something that benefits myself in terms of a fleshly desire - three categories are offered by the Divine John, 'the lust of the flesh, the pride of life, and the lust of the eyes' - which are categorized similarly by Holy Maximus the Confessor as the passions associated with the 'erascible' and 'concupscible' parts of the soul. Secondly, a selfish desire could be a desire which is in accordance to the spiritual desires of which Paul writes 'walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit' of which the chief desires may be God. There are then a series of desires which, in my opinion, form a gradient between God and fleshly desires, which are therefore while still being able to be called 'selfish' in that they are oriented towards getting something which is desired because it benefits myself, or my person, not 'evil' in the sense of strictly 'egoic'.
Then what is this 'egoic' that I speak of? An object will suffice to demonstrate the problem of the difference between the 'ego' and the 'true self' - firstly it should be noted that as I stated above, being that these are all parts of myself, they are difficult to examine, as firstly whatever state I find myself in is the state I know, and therefore can be taken to be the 'natural' state - the state I was created to be in. This would be an error.
The egoic is like a cart with four independent wheels which move all directions; and which with proper guidance may be aligned properly so that the cart will move unhindered this way or that, but given a loose and inattentive approach will tend to spin whichever way the contours of the ground on which they roll tends them to. The ego represents spiritual inertia, that is, the tedency of me to continue in the state that myself is in; it is almost like an ersatz self that develops around my current state, like a skin that develops on a thick soup or a snake's skin, which by all rights appears to be that thing, but only represents the ossification of that thing at a particular point.
Thus, the ego of the cart is like the simple tendency of the cart - which is for the wheels to be guided by the shape of the ground - which can be said to be neither good nor evil, but which will inevitably result in evil if improper guidance is supplied.
Imagine then, if you wish, that this law of movement about the wheels is our natural state - and the ego is a desire for the wheels to operate simply as reflections of the ground's shape rather than align in the direction that the cart is being moved by a free will. If we were in a place where the ground was smooth and the weight on the cart was always sufficient, for instance, we would find this cart's 'ego' to be a smoothly operating part in the overall scheme of our carting objects about. It would be in essence 'invisible' - but still operative.
But in the situation of conditions differing from the ideal, whether in the makeup of the cart from wear, improper care, or improper manufacture, or in the environs departing from the conditions the cart was designed for, the 'natural tendency' of the cart becomes troublesome unless virtue is exercised to command it more rigorously and carefully, and perhaps also to fix some flaws that have arisen in the unit.
In this case, the ego becomes something which wars against the will of the cart-driver, a 'dumb ox' of sorts which is entirely sensual. 'Self-esteem' then we can define as being 'esteeming the self' - which in and of itself is value-neutral. If the self is in a good condition; let's say the cart is in good condition, and the driver is rigorous, perhaps we can say some good things of the conditions, and perhaps esteem of some kind would not be unreasonable.
But what if we esteem the self, taking note of the potential of all carts-and-drivers to be great, what will the result be? If we speak beyond potential, we would be of course speaking lies. Yes, all men have the potential for deification, but not all men are deified. If our goal is virtue, or even that men are deified, we would find no time at which we would ever indulge in self-esteem; since there would be no point at which we would stop our criticism and analysis of our errors so that by grace, we might improve them and attain that one selfish thing which is not evil, God.
What then would be the cause of enhancing men's self esteem at all? The first might be encouragement, as men may get discouraged by the difficulties of attaining virtue; but this would not be 'boosting self esteem', unless the person has began to think of themselves as something lesser than they are, such as one not possessing a free will or the image of God. This encouragement would then consist of disabusing the person of improper negative concepts about themselves, and soothing, as with a balm, the pain caused by their infestation.
Beyond this, there should be no boost of self-esteem offered! Since after this the only cause could be exciting and satisfying a passion, namely, the pride of life.
Something then can be said about this whole notion, 'self esteem' - that if one is to aid others who are say, despairing, or failing, one must have a reasonably accurate - whether through reason or intuition - view of what human nature really is and what the other person really thinks. If not, one may, like a quack doctor, apply the incorrect cure and perhaps cause the patient some kind of new illness: an addiction, a poisoning, an additional inflammation of infection?
But to those who are of good courage - especially ourselves - we must offer harsh realism and no boosts of self esteem unless we have began to believe that somehow (by lies of the enemy) that we are doomed to fail even with God's help, or some other kind of error. We can then be encouraged by various words, such as those of the Gospel of John 3:16, and recalling the words of Holy Apostle Paul about our rebirth, and of how in his Epistle to the Romans he notes that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
But in all cases, we rejoice in truth, we cannot rejoice in things which are not true, and especially things which in rejoicing in them we risk losing them. Rejoicing in the love of God does not risk us losing him, but rejoicing in our successes against the enemy or against our bad habits could, as we Americans recall a great battle was won in our independence because a group of soldiers decided to celebrate prematurely. Likewise with the Trojan Horse, and were these men not slaughtered and laid to waste by a premature rejoicing? So if we are to rejoice over something - to have esteem in it or enjoy it, we must ensure that it has been secured fully, or otherwise like a fine treasure it might slip from our hands while we admire it, or perhaps we become like a scholar with a new book who runs into a lamp-post and drops it into the sewer.
Thus we have contradicting opinions about 'self esteem' - based mostly on how we think people really are. If we believe, as some of those 'New Age' spiritualists do, that we are actually Gods or God already, then all that is missing is to say all kinds of positive and esteeming things, since they are, in that view, already true and thus cannot be lost by rejoicing over them! But if we do not think this, then we must be sober and moderate in our rejoicing, not as though we do this by simply not drinking any alcohol or ever smoking tobacco - (for often as not such acts lead to self-righteousness and a cooling of love as they are done often legalistically) - but by understanding what we can really rejoice about. When we fellowship, we rejoice that we may be be with another, and that they can be with us, and that this is real. And this will last until we die, and are separated, but this also will be for only a time, and it will be sad, but that in the end we will be together again.
'Individualism' is of course an aberration like 'collectivism' - the former promoting the idea that individuals do not rely on anyone but themselves really, or that the ideal is for a man to be able to claim all his actions and possessions as strictly his own and in this particular way owing no man anything. Collectivism denies the reality of the individual, ultimately, unless that individual be the 'corporate person' who is really the leader. It should be noted that the former - while having a lofty goal of owing no man any thing, denies realities to achieve this (that we are at best interdependent - and that our actions are built on our experiences which are free gifts for better or worse from others, and that our possessions come ultimately from God and God alone, but the accidents of history are his Providence - though there be an infinite series of intermediate causes that we can trace into the mists of time.) and the second while having the goal of men communing also denies a reality - personhood - to achieve this.
Only love overcomes this, but love it should be noted not as a catharsis, such as is exemplified in 'Mr. Hyde' - love as a release of pent up desires. Instead, it is love as kenosis - free giving - which enables individuals to commune. In some eras we will be at more risk of becoming individualistic, that is, of thinking of our individuality as the most important thing, and thus making an idol of it, while in others we may be at greater risk of becoming collectivistic and forgetting our person and free will and therefore our responsibility for our choices. Both lead to ruin.
It should be noted that we find fulfillment, as Christians, of this ideal in the Holy Trinity; where individuals are communing perfectly - as an Englishman I might call them a 'company'; as in 'three's company.' They are three 'units' of the divine, if you will, but they - he is not merely that, since they intermingle fully and without restriction. So how is it that they remain distinct - individual if you will - while not being separated? It is of course, Love.
For if we consider our possessions not simply to be the thing we bought yesterday, but recognize that all things which we in some way control or influence are proximally our own, we will see that we intermingle already; and how 'mine and yours' with a legal strictness is the death of love. Of course, the opposite destroys love as well; for the love is in the intermingling of 'mine' and 'yours' and not the destruction of those categories. It is only because my grandfather bought the watch, and my father received it from him and gave it to me that there is love; if the watch was not owned - and take note that our ownership is always stewardship - temporary and subject to conditions - then what would it matter where it was when? If the skin oil could not be said to belong to this or that man, what significance would there be in each man wearing the watch in succession?
To love we must do two things; first is to recognize what we possess, and the second is to give it away. You cannot 'give your love away' - and certainly, you must know that you cannot give away something that does not belong to you. Thus for husbands and wives I can offer a single caveat; the husband belongs to the wife and the wife to the husband; and yet they still are in possession of themselves. This means that in this sense of fullness, which prostitutes cheapen and young romantics misunderstand, can only be given away to one other, beside God to whom all things truly belong.
And gifts exist which are proper for each need, and so God created in men and women a need for one another on one hand, and a gift for the other on the other hand. Thus they can, as in 'the Gift of the Magi' give, and in emptiness have a true fullness.
And likewise, God created in us a need for him, and a gift to give Him, which is ourselves. But God is free of need! How then can he accept anything? But then recall, dear friends, that not every gift meets a need, but rather, some are given which are more than what is needed, and even we are capable of accepting more than we need! And this is proper gratitude; to accept the intention as well as the gift. Did I need the money? Perhaps no, but I see that the person desired good things for me and then turned that desire into gifts. And so for God, who has no need, he is able to accept our gifts as well - and since he has no needs, he is quick to give Himself, as he is the source of all Good things.
But remember, that God is a person as well (more accurately, three!) and that he, like us, has a freedom of will, and that a proper gift is given freely. Therefore, we are trained and learn to give expecting nothing in return, which based on God's experience must be the norm! (For what can we give Him that he would need?)
We should not say, though, that a need is a disadvantage; as though God made us broken so he could fix us. Rather, it should be said that we were made to commune with Him, to participate in his Life, and that - like a car without gasoline - when that is absent, what is natural becomes a need.
So we have a paradox; since the only good selfish thing we can do is desire God, but that to do so requires selflessness! What this means, then, is our paradigm of 'self' is insufficient to the task, as what we often call self is a collection of temporary possessions, when what is truly permanent about us - and only by grace even then - is hidden from ourselves because we are that thing! Only through another can we see in any way what this is.
And not knowing what we really are, perhaps - it is improper to esteem that thing, since it is fleeting and uncertain. In fact, since we are uncertain of what will remain ours (and shall we keep it? Or not give it away?) then why should we have any self-esteem at all?
In conclusion, I would say that it should be obvious that we are individuals, but that this individuality is not something to be grasped in and of itself, but neither is it to be erased or obliterated. To grasp it is to esteem it, while we should esteem God and the good things that he and his servants do. Since communing with God benefits us, it might be said that seeking God is selfish, but to commune with God requires Love, which is self-forgetting.
Therefore 'selfish' things are good insofar as they draw us towards God, and bad insofar as they distance us from him. The desire for salvation is a selfish one, but it is a desire for God, which leads us to self-forgetting. We also cannot be good just be being unselfish, as he who obliterates himself destroys the gift which God gave him, instead of giving it. The person who destroys their personhood does likewise; for if there is no 'you' then there is nothing to have and therefore nothing to give.
I ALONE WILL BE CONDEMNED