When I first read Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, I remember feeling very uncomfortable. Nouwen has a way of being very honest in his writing. He is incredibly honest about himself. He is also very honest as he talks about the human condition as he sees it. He is perceptive in his read of Christians, the church, and our sins.
The following is an excerpt from The Way of the Heart.
"Compulsive" is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated, or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same — more work, more money, more friends (pp.10-11).
…When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. When my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of a redeemed world (p. 11).
Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant ("turn stones into loaves"), to be spectacular ("throw yourself down"), and to be powerful ("I will give you all these kingdoms."). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity ("You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone."). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter — the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self (pp. 13-14).
(Nouwen, The Way of the Heart)