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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Ego Trip" (Glynn Harrison)

TITLE: Ego Trip: Rediscovering Grace in a Culture of Self-Esteem
AUTHOR: Glynn Harrison
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, (208 pages).

One of the most intriguing things about our culture is the insatiable appetite for self-help, supplemented by seminars and conferences. Many bookstores have bludgeoning spaces allocated to self-help books. Motivational gurus are kept busy with increasing demand for booster talks and feel-good events. Even the field of leadership is flooded with constant streams of people in expert fields giving advice to executives and working adults who are willing to pay big bucks to attend the conferences. If we do the math, if the books and conferences are effective, would there not be a decrease in the number of people needing help? Instead, what we are seeing is an epidemic of demand which psychiatrist and author Glynn Harrison has coined: "Boosterism."

The Problem
Harrison begins the book with a trip back to the age where self-esteem has been played up to young kids. We regularly hear that "Every kid is special." Reality TV shows tell us that "we need to believe in ourselves." We are taught to "think positive" and banish anything that threatens to introduce low self-esteem. Harrison puts it well:
"The self-esteem movement gripped our imagination because it engaged with this, the deepest and most profound problem of our lives — the struggle for significance and self-worth — and it told us it could fix it."
With promises, experts, and the timing of the needs of our era, the self-esteem industry has only one way to go: Up. He traces it back to the "father of psychology," Johnny Wilkinson, who first coined, "self-esteem" after bouts of mental health issues. This concept is farther developed by Sigmund Freud who describes the human person in three parts: id (like babies demands), the ego (all things me), the super ego (where one absorbs values and expectations of surroundings). Inferiority complex occurs when the "id" gets overwhelmed by the "super-ego." The "self-esteem" movement essentially deals with trying to build up one's ego to overcome any guilt produced by the "super-ego."

Harrison tries to bring this belief back down to earth by questioning this rarely critiqued infatuation about egoism. He attempts to show that the ideology of self-esteem is flawed and the science behind it is based on a "statistical fallacy." So the first part of the book is to debunk the whole ideology and science around self-esteem. Harrison hones in on the three major reasons why the self-esteem movement is at an all-time high. 1) It promises big; 2) It is supported by multiple experts; 3) It timed itself perfectly with the human need for meaning and significance. Harrison aims to debunk the entire "big ego" philosophy by first showing the empty promises of self-esteem movement, followed by a renewal of hope in God's prescription. The key thesis of the book is that self-fulfillment or its variants do not provide the answers to one's quest for meaning and significance. It is in finding God that we will truly find ourselves.

After questioning the underlying philosophy of what the world says about self-esteem, Harrison asks the efficacy question: "Does Boosterism Work?" He cautiously says no, pointing out the tendency of people to be more subjective rather than objective. The clue lies in the tendency toward sex, drugs, and drinks when subjectivism fails. When that happens, the result of a failure to build up one's self-esteem is escapism. More crucially, the roots of narcissism actually lies in the uncritical acceptance of self-esteem as the key to happiness. So parents over-praise their kids, regardless of what they do. All roads lead to philosophy, and the problem of narcissism, self-esteem, and egoistic behaviours come back to an erroneous sense of self or self-esteem. The second part of the book focuses on how self-worth can be cultivated, and how identity and purpose can be discovered.

So What?

A psychiatrist himself, Harrison urges us to re-consider the things science and culture tell us. When a message comes across in the name of science that says things like, "10% of the results say so," how certain or exact are they? What kind of assumptions are there? It is important to be careful about what science or research says about the self-ego. For what makes it so certain that a "10%" is exactly 10%? After all, contexts vary from time to time, from place to place, from from researcher to researcher; even from reporter to reporter. It is the very logical error of trying assume some conclusion as if they were perfect truth that riles up the author, who is both a licensed psychiatrist as well as a Professor at the University of Bristol, UK. This is due largely to science fitting in nicely with a cultural desire for self-affirmation, as well as the aftermath of the Renaissance movement. Even the educational institutions and the Self-Help establishments fueled the rise of the self-esteem movement. The Church has unwittingly bought into this as well, and for some, they may even think that the purpose of God is to make man!

For those who are philosophically inclined, they will find chapter 8 a very engaging one as Harrison traces the historical development of the science and thinking leading to the modern self-esteem movement. All of these tends to be utterly human-centered leading Harrison to assert that "we cannot signify ourselves." We are significant not because we imagine or say we are so. We are valued because of God's Word and Grace.

For Christians living in a self-esteem world, it is easy to confuse self-belief versus belief in God. If left unchecked, the attitude of self-wins will attempt to make God into our own image, or buying into the illusion of we are meant to be gods. Slowly, Harrison moves away from the flaws of worldly beliefs over self-esteem toward the fullness of God's Word about human beings toward the realm of theology. In doing so, Harrison has integrated science, philosophy, sociology, and other specialized fields of study under theology. We are reminded that we are sinners living in a fallen world. We learn to look at the roots of our poor self-esteem in the first place. Life is not about enduring the elements with grit, or to push and shove our way through obstacles via positive thinking. It is about receiving life as a gift by the grace of God. The crucial difference is that worldly self-esteem leads us back to self. Biblical understanding of self leads us back to God.

For too long, many of us have swallowed the poison pill of self-esteem, making it key to maintaining a good self image. It is time to stop taking this prescription, and to learn the biblical way of true image. We are not what the world thinks of us, or what we say about ourselves. We are what God says we are.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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