Expressive Individualism and Identity, Part 2

By: Brad Rogers


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Check out part one of this series, You Do You, my attempt at a brief introduction to expressive individualism (EI).

In part one, we examined the “You do you” mindset, called expressive individualism. EI is the idea that finding and being true to one’s deepest self and then articulating that self out in the world is the key to life. In its strictest forms this mentality doesn’t invite input from anyone else, including family, friends, or church for fear of not being true to one’s self. Thus, it is an unapologetically self-focused method of identity formation that is pervasive in Western culture today.


Today, in part two, I’m going to summarize in my own words a section from Making Sense of God, written by Tim Keller, who ministers in New York City. In chapter six of Making Sense of God Keller looks at the notion of identity formation and some of the issues we face today.[1]


In the segment we are considering here, Keller writes about how the foundation of our sense of self has changed recently in Western society.


He says that in ancient cultures and many non-Western cultures today the hero’s story is of self-sacrifice, and his self-worth was grounded in the honor bestowed upon him by his community. By contrast, today in the modern West the hero’s story is about self-assertion, and the hero’s sense of self-worth is rooted in the honor he bestows upon himself.[2]


Keller pinpoints a few problems with the ways that Western people today define and create their identity. He describes these problems as incoherent desires, the illusion of self-identification, crushing pressure and how he sees modern identity fracturing today.  I will seek only seek to summarize and discuss the first three here.  


Incoherent Desire

EI based identity is rooted in a person’s particular wants and desires. For example, we ask ourselves “What do I want to do with my life?”


Here’s the problem: when I look into my heart, I see all kinds of desires in there. There are some that I wouldn’t mind sharing with you and others I will keep to myself lest you never again take me seriously. When I look closely, I find that many of my desires are contradictory. For instance, I want to spend more time preparing sermons (at the office) and I want to spend more time investing in my kids playing ball. I want to be svelte and ripped, but I also want to eat a box a cereal with whole milk every night right before I go to bed.  If I’m going to ground my identity in my desire, how do I decide which desires to pursue?


What if I locate my deepest desire and follow it?  Keller writes that this solution has its flaws because it assumes that our desires are ordered and that they always remain the same. I can tell you that, at least for me, desires aren’t static. When I was twelve years old I wanted to be Navy Fighter Pilot. From time to time, I catch myself daydreaming about going to medical school and becoming a doctor, but tomorrow I might be dreaming of earning a Ph.D in historical theology.  When I was in high school I wanted to be 6’4”, bench press 350 lbs., run 4.3 40 yard dash, and play Quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.  Oh wait, I still want that and still think it could happen, but I am afraid that is another category altogether, sorry.  I have had quite a number of competing occupational desires in my lifetime and I can’t begin to number the competing desires I have had in other significant areas of my life.


Our desires are apt to change, and they are also elusive. Has anyone ever asked you what you want and you find that you really don’t know? Identity formation grounded on desire assumes that I have a deep understanding of myself, and if it what I want isn’t readily apparent, it can be found with a little effort. Given the chaotic nature of our souls, this seems like unstable ground stand on. Identity rooted in elusive desire is inarguably incoherent. 


Sigmund Freud believed that our innermost being is filled with a chaos of desire for power, love, comfort, and control and that these desires compete and would trample each other to win out if they could. He wrote, “We are not happy because we are frustrated….we are frustrated because we are, first of all, unhappy combinations of conflicting desires.”[3] Indeed.


Reflecting on more of Freud’s body of work, Keller writes that “Freud would have shaken his head at many of his descendants in modern psychotherapy who have lost his realism about the inner darkness, incoherence, and destructiveness of the inmost desires.”[4] While Freud would give another name to our inner darkness, the bible calls it sin and says that it invades all aspects of our being, which makes basing our identity on our deepest desires problematic and to Keller’s point, incoherent.


Illusion of Self-Identification

One of the components of current identity formation is that you alone set the standard and norm for yourself. You declare your significance to yourself.  The problem is, this is impossible to do. And we know it instinctively.


Keller writes of a young man whose parents never said to him, “‘I would be proud of you if you did this or that.’” When he asked them for guidance they replied, “We just want you to do what you truly want to do -whatever that is, it will be all right with us.” The young man complained  that their lack of guidance and input made him “feel unloved and rudderless.”[5]


We all want to be admired by those we admire, and we want to be respected by those we respect. It is when we find the approval of someone that we love or care about that we find a sense of worth. Keller writes that even though people act like, and even think that, they are “validating themselves,” they (we) are adapting our words and behaviors to fit into a new community of people – the kind of people from whom we crave approval.[6] For me, when certain people complement or criticize a sermon I preached it means more to me than when I hear it from others.


Have you ever seen a social media post where someone states an opinion and then says “that is just who I am and I don’t care what other people think,” and yet it has 57 “likes”? The poster may have rejected what some people think, but he apparently cares what some crowd of people think, otherwise why would he have posted in a public forum at all?


The irony is that, “I don’t care what others think” is exactly the sentiment that our current culture applauds. We think we have set our minds free, when really we are trapped by the beliefs of our age or tribe. On this, Keller quotes sociologist Robert Bellah who calls this idea a “cultural fiction” that we can “make up our deepest beliefs in the isolation of our private selves.”[7]


It is an illusion that we have the capacity to form an identity without being influenced by outside factors and other people.


Crushing Pressure of Identity

Everywhere I look I see articles on how much anxiety people are experiencing today in comparison with days gone by. What is going on? Why is this the case?


There are multiple factors, I think, but the pressure of “being ones’ self” and “forging one’s own identity” must be near the top of the list. Imagine the pressure of trying to be myself and to forge my identity without others’ help while I struggle to know what my deep desires are only to discover that they are in conflict.


Keller points out that when self-definition of identity is the norm, it leads to a society that idolizes winners and looks down on losers, with tangible contempt for weakness. He writes, “success or failure is now seen as the individual’s responsibility alone,” in part because “our culture tells us that we have the power to create ourselves.”[8] So if what we create fails, we alone are to blame and “failure” becomes a defining characteristic of our identity.


So many of us today feel the pressure to decide on our own where we go to college, our career, and our mate along with our ethos, our stances and our style, and these decisions are the expression of who we “really” are. And we drink this ideology in the air we breathe without recognizing the pressure it brings.


Do you see the irony here? Expressive individualism leaves us more dependent on what others think of us than ever, because, as Keller writes, we feel the pressure to be brilliant, beautiful, hip, and accomplished and we need others to agree to make it true.[9] This overdependence on others enslaves us, e.g. posting “the perfect” picture at just the right time in the evening on social media to maximize our “likes”.


To the extent that this is true in our culture and in our own lives, what are we to do? Anxiety and despair are not aspects of the abundant life that we are promised, so what is the answer?


The third and final part of this series, The Christian Identity and EI, will be posted next week.



[1] Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, An Invitation to the Skeptical, (Viking, 2016), 118-132.

[2] It should be noted that Keller acknowledges that there are problems associated with the ancient and non-Western methods of identity formation as well as important positive aspects of identity formation in the West today by comparison with the ancient and non-Western methods. We will consider a biblical way to look at identity formation in part 3.

[3] Phillip Reiff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 35.

[4] Keller, Making Sense of God, 124.

[5] Ibid., 126.

[6] Ibid., 125.

[7] Ibid., 128.

[8] Ibid., 129.

[9] Ibid., 129.