by Elle Berry | 8 March 2019 |
In the spring of 2011, I often found myself questioning my life choices. I was working at a Montessori school with around 80 nursery and preschool students. There were mornings I enjoyed this job. But there were at least an equal number of mornings where I could not remember why I had chosen this work.
Like any good classroom, my co-teachers and I had a system. As circle time came to an end, one teacher would slowly siphon children in the direction of the restroom. A second teacher would oversee the bathroom area, making sure that all the preschoolers used the restroom for… y’know, restroom kinds of activities. And a third teacher would coordinate children in the mudroom, helping direct their energy into putting on their boots and outerwear, and subsequently releasing them onto the playground for morning recess. Slowly we would move through this process, until all the children were outside. I recall a particularly arduous collection of weeks where this mudroom rotation was mine, and despite my greatest efforts and most accomplished diplomatic adulting skills, I continued to be bested by a three-foot-tyrant, with whom I was perpetually in a battle of wills.
We had recently acquired this student from the nursery room—a fresh three-year-old. And every morning of my mudroom rotation, this child would sit in his cubby and play with pebbles in his pockets, or count invisible objects on the wall, or really anything besides actually get his boots and coat on. It didn’t matter if we sent him first, so he’d have extra time to get ready, he’d still be the last kid in the mudroom, militantly (yet somehow, absentmindedly?) not putting on his boots, or coat. Finally, at some frustrated point in this process, I would generally resort to the end-all of ultimatums: “Do you want me to help your body, or do you want to do it yourself…?” And the inevitable, frustrated, three-year-old voice would always answer, “Do it myself!” as he clinched his determined little fist.
Independence vs. Narcissism
I learned a lot of lessons during my short time as a Montessori teacher—like, how herding three-year-olds is probably not my life calling. But one of the things I found most fascinating was just how early the desire for independence sets in. Even two-year-olds exhibit the desire for autonomy, to be captains of their own ships—why we sometimes refer to those years as “the terrible twos.” Given a choice between, A. doing something we don’t want to do… while being coerced versus B. doing something we don’t want to do…but on our own terms? Even a two-year-old will want to do it myself.
Generally speaking, this is a really positive aspect of our humanity. Something we refer to as free will. And it is a defining quality that allows us to move in freedom of conscience and liberty—things that, as a good American, I would argue are inalienable rights.
Granted, for anyone spending their morning arguing with a three-year-old (or participating in politics) this autonomy comes at a horrifically frazzling cost.
Over the last few years I have often thought about this tendency to do it myself, considering where it has value versus where it seems to sour. I have written here previously about Craig Malkin’s theory, which changed how I thought about narcissism. As Malkin asserts, narcissists are actually defined as those who avoid or dodge feelings of vulnerability because they’re afraid of depending on people. Therefore, the narcissist is in fact phobic of being dependent on anyone, and consequently, turns to the self-soothing practice of making themselves feel special. As a special person, they don’t need to depend on those around them, but are superior to these relational needs. So where is the line between the phobic narcissistic behavior of not-depending-on-people versus healthy, self-autonomous, do-it-myself?
The first time I recognized myself as an heir of the do-it-myselfer was a few years ago when I was reading about Eve. The Genesis story was for many years a frustratingly confusing story to me. I mean, it’s not that it’s a complex story. There’s a man and woman in a garden, there’s a bunch of trees you can eat from—and then there’s only one tree you’re not supposed to eat from. A serpent shows up, and somehow convinces the woman (and subsequently the man) to eat from the only tree they’re not supposed to eat from. The story is simple enough, but never had I ever understood the motive of Eve. I mean, Why? Consider this: You’re in a garden with a bonanza of culinary options, but somehow you’re so greedy you can’t help but have the one fruit that you’re not supposed to eat? The story never resonated with me. And I don’t think I was unique in that problem. Yet, if we can’t see ourselves in this story, how can we learn its lesson?
Obviously, at face value, this is a story of disobedience. God said not to do something, and then they did it. But again, as far as dumb acts of rebellion go, this one always seemed bizarre. However, I’ve come to believe that there is a more nuanced why in this story than the issue of obedience per se (not that obedience isn’t part of it.) But I think reducing it to just an obedience matter perhaps overlooks how much potential humans were created with. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear that Eve was particularly setting out to be disobedient. In fact we’re clearly told that Eve was deceived, which implies an error in understanding, not an error of intention. What I actually believe is happening is that Eve is the beginning of the do-it-myself, not-depending-on-others (in this case, not depending on God), human story.
I came to consider this idea a few years ago, while reading Carolyn Custis James’ book Lost Women of the Bible. But before I get into why I think Eve did what she did, it’s important to first establish some Genesis background. First of all, one important piece of information we’re given in Genesis involves Eve’s identity: Eve is one of two imago Dei, or image bearers, who are created. Second, the mission statement of humanity, as declared in Genesis, is that humans are made to be image bearers of God. This is a mission statement with broad autonomy and huge responsibility. Furthermore, there is no gender-specific aspect to that mission statement. There are a lot of misunderstandings about Eve, but it should be noted that according to the Genesis creation story, women are given as much authority in being image bearers of God as men are.
So having established that Eve is an image bearer, what exactly does that mean? Well, as Ms. James notes, “King David… offers us much more in our quest to understand what it means to be made in God’s image and he used rather startling language to make his point—so startling some translators have understandably been hesitant to give us the straight translation: ‘You have made them a little lower than God [Elohim], crowned them with glory and honor’ What does he mean by ‘a little lower than God’?” James continues, saying, “I would argue that David has in view the rank God bestowed on humans at creation. God is the king, but he called Eve (along with Adam) to be his vice regents—next in rank to God himself in the creation. As his vice regent, as his image bearer, Eve’s goal was to align herself with God at every possible level.” If you were still holding on to any ideas of Eve as a timid, second-class, helper, I think now might be a good time to reconsider these views.
So why is this image bearer stuff important? Well, it turns out understanding this made a massive difference in how I read Genesis 3. As the serpent began to dialogue with Eve (and Adam, who, although he is silent throughout this conversation, it should be noted is right there with her) the serpent makes a fascinating argument, saying, “God knows that when you eat from the tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” The first time I caught that line, I was stunned. Far from this being an appeal to stupid rebellion, this was in actuality a reasoned argument. The serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit, she would become the very thing that she was created to be: an image bearer. As Ms. James notes, “The Enemy shrewdly chose the perfect bait, targeting Eve’s calling as image bearer. Here was the Alice in Wonderland approach to fulfilling Eve’s God-given calling in life. Just sink your teeth into this piece of fruit and presto, ‘you’ll be like God.’” When you read Genesis 3 with that understanding, it seems clear that in choosing to eat the fruit, Eve was not doing a simple act of disobedience. Rather she was engaging in a reasoned response, that was chosen because it seemed to affirm her calling as an image bearer.
Should I Do It Myself?
Now to be clear, I’m certainly not defending or insinuating that this was a good idea. Obviously, it fundamentally missed everything of importance—but I would argue that its flaw was not just because it was disobedience. The primary thing that it missed was that she was attempting to become an image bearer without depending on God to become what she was created to be; she was seeking to accomplish her mission by doing a work instead of being in a relationship. Basically, Eve initiated the first ever mudroom, do-it-myself, standoff.
Thinking about the Genesis story this way was a new concept for me. While I usually think there is more than one good way to read a Bible story, this particular way of understanding Genesis has kept me pondering a great deal. How often do we humans pursue noble ideals, but attempt reaching these goals with do-it-myself methodologies? We defend these choices, arguing that as long as we reach these good goals, how we get there doesn’t matter. But, doesn’t it? When we put good works before relationships, there is a tremendous cost—but most crucially, we miss our divine calling. The truth is, to become an image bearer of the Divine, there is no magic pill or fruit we can eat to be like God. The work of holiness, and the work of taking on our divine calling, and the work of becoming imago Dei—these are only works that can be catalyzed within the context of relationship. Becoming imago Dei is a work composed of a thousand conversations and shared daily walks, and a constant willingness to engage our vulnerability, trust, and dependency, both in God, as well as with those we are called to love. We cannot reduce our humanity to our doings and expect to fulfill a divine calling.
While I continue to struggle with my own balance between do-it-myself vs. depending on others, I have found it helpful to consider Eve. For many of us, the pull to our narcissistic tendencies (to not depend on anyone) is far stronger than the pull to our higher angels. Yet, we too are image bearers, and the lessons of Eve are lessons for us all; her failures and successes are our inheritance. When we fail to recognize ourselves in her story, we are likely doomed to repeat her choices. And don’t get me wrong, none of this takes away from our free will—nor does it diminish its value. Human autonomy is a beautiful gift that enables us to love fully. But when it comes to becoming all we were created to be, this is not a do-it-myself work. Our autonomy is the means that allows us to love well—but ultimately, the God in whose image we are made is a God of love. And love is never a do-it-myself story.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.