Today, of course, communism has mostly faded away, except in some few, scattered corners of academia. But a new ideology is rapidly gaining acceptance all around us: the ideology of the self-created individual. If we were to try to capture the essence of this ideology in a single slogan, it might be: “you can be whoever or whatever you can imagine yourself to be.”
It matters little, in evaluating this ideology, whether one is the most mystical of theists or the most hardheaded of materialists. Whether you think it was divine intention or the blind turning of the gears of evolution that made us what we are, one thing should be clear to anyone even loosely in touch with reality: we humans did not create ourselves. Furthermore, we cannot “be whoever we imagine we can.” Whether or not one believes in God, so long as one has some grip on reality, it is obvious that none of us can be God, either because we are simply a part of material reality, and not its source, or because there already is one God, and no room for a second. We also cannot be an oak tree or an earthworm.
But even within the realm of human possibility, not every person can be anything that any human might become. A person born with dwarfism is not going to become an NBA basketball player. A person born with severe Down syndrome is not going to become a top theoretical physicist. And if they imagine they might, it is not “positive thinking” to encourage that belief, but more like playing a cruel prank on them. The realist answer to the “self-creationists’” ideological slogan might be put, “Accept who you are, and be the best version of that person possible.”
But, as with the communists, the acolytes of the ideology of the self-created individual want, not to accept reality, but to replace reality with their dreamworld. They reject the simple fact that we, as created beings (whether created by God or nature), cannot be whoever we want to be, but must deal with the hand we have been dealt by our creator as best we can. While any decent person wants those born with disabilities, such as blindness or non-functioning limbs, to have the opportunity for the most fulfilling life possible, the ideologues of the self-created individual try to deny that naturally occurring disabilities even exist: “The only disability I have is your attitude” is a slogan I have seen on posters in university hallways. It as though the only reason a blind person has trouble driving in rush-hour traffic is bad attitudes on the part of other drivers, or the difficulty a paraplegic has in climbing a mountain is due to insufficiently enlightened rocks. Thus, the ideologues of the self-created individual are like Marx in this respect also: they admit there are limits on individual self-creation, but only because “haters” create those limits.
Which brings us to Bruce Jenner. One of the hands that God or evolution has dealt us is our sex. And, in most wisdom traditions, accepting who you are is a huge step on the road to happiness. The ancient Greeks inscribed “Know thyself” on the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The Ten Commandments advise us not to envy what others have but we don’t. Buddhism teaches that it is the desire to be other than what we are that causes suffering. Taoism tells us that the way to inner peace is to become one with the natural order of things. And much more recently, Freud recommended extensive self-examination, and not superficial transformations of one’s body parts, as the path to psychological equilibrium. But the ideology of the self-created individual stands in stark opposition to all of those traditions: rather than understanding and accepting who we are, our only real problem is that reactionary others stand in the way of our transforming ourselves into whatever we imagine we might be instead.