Don’t Pin Me Down?

Will President Clinton invade Haiti—or won't he? Political commentators have trouble keeping up with the president's frequent vacillations. But there's one psychiatrist who thinks he has Clinton all figured out. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton says Clinton is a prime example of the "protean self." The term protean comes from the Greek mythological god Proteus, who could alter his shape from a lion to a tree to a blazing fire. Lifton says many Americans exhibit a psychological pattern that he calls the "protean self": They're constantly trying out new beliefs and identities. You might think Lifton means this as criticism of Americans. But no: He means it as a compliment. Lifton argues that in a postmodern world—a world of constant flux—it's actually healthier to undergo constant personality flux as well. A person's psychology is greatly influenced by his beliefs—by his ideas about what is real and right. Historically, Western culture held that there is a unified, universal truth. Christians, secularists, and others disagreed over what that truth was, yet they agreed that there exists a consistent, overarching truth. That belief wasn't just intellectual; it also fostered psychological stability—a sense of self that was coherent and consistent. But postmodern culture has abandoned all confidence in a single truth. Instead it celebrates diversity and change. This has led to a whole new image of the self: a self with no fixed center, no stable identity. One of the best expressions of postmodernism is a series of self-portraits by artist Cindy Sherman. Sherman poses in a variety of contradictory roles, from a prim schoolgirl in a headscarf to a seductive woman in a toga from ancient Greece. Her point is that there is no coherent "self" for a self-portrait. We can only try on an endless array of conflicting identities. This is what Lifton means by the "protean self." And his book on the subject, called The Protean Self, has been promoted all the way from academic journals to Parade magazine. But if Lifton defines mental health as constant change, how does he define sickness? The answer is: stability. In Lifton's schema, people with a stable, consistent sense of truth and of themselves exhibit a malady he calls the "fundamentalist self." If that term seems to have religious overtones, it's meant to. Most of the "fundamentalists" interviewed in Lifton's book are conservative Christians. In a dreary rerun of history, it seems that psychiatry is once again labeling Christians as mentally ill. Sigmund Freud considered Christians neurotic because they believe in a heavenly Father, who—according to Freud— does not exist. Now Lifton is labeling Christians as mentally ill because they hold a consistent, comprehensive belief system—what he calls a "totalizing world view"—which gives Christians a secure inner identity. If these new psychiatric categories catch on, Christians could even be diagnosed as mentally ill and delivered over for treatment. That's why it's crucial for you and me to stay on top of new trends and to learn how to counter false ideas. Otherwise, the next persecution of the church may well come in the name of psychiatry.


Chuck Colson



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