I’m Okay, You’re Okay (10/24/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
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University Congregational Church
The 1970’s was called the “me” decade. After the 1960’s, in which America’s social soul was laid bear and examined from every imaginable perspective, the 70’s saw us turn inward. The bestseller lists started becoming saturated with a new type of book, which quickly earned the nickname pop psychology.
This genre grew and grew and finally, today, under the heading of self-help, we find the offspring of those early books now filling entire sections of the bookstore, and often dominating the bestseller list. Many of these books are quite good. Some of them are atrocious.
I’ve noticed is that if an author manages to write a successful self-help book, he or she will have another one on the shelf, saying basically the same thing as the first, within a few months. Consider one of the most successful self-help franchises—the Chicken Soup books. First there was Chicken Soup for the Soul, and almost immediately afterwards came the follow up which was called, of course, A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul was soon a runaway bestseller. It must have done very well, because when I tried to look it up on the internet, I found Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Volume Three. A little more digging and I discovered that there are now over 100 titles in the Chicken Soup series, and they have been translated into 39 languages. And it is a nice series of books, but how much chicken soup do we need?
Self-help is very big business, which leads me to believe we Americans are a people who at least think we need some help—lots of help! I admit to reading my fair share of these books, and over the years, I’ve found some of them beneficial. I like the ones that tell us to relax, not to take things too seriously, and to enjoy the gift of life. We all need to be reminded of that now and then. I don’t like the ones that tell us to turn away from the world and build the whole universe around our personal self. There is a fine line between healthy, spiritual introspection and narcissism, and a fair number of self-help books cross that line.
This morning, I want to jump back about 30 years to the first self-help book that came to my attention: I’m Okay, You’re Okay, which was a huge bestseller in the early 70’s. Thomas Harris wrote this book, and please hear me when I tell you I am not recommending it. If you need some chicken soup for your soul, you can probably do better than a 30-year-old paperback on pop psychology. But the general idea behind this book is interesting, and has some merit, so I want to spend a little time with that idea this morning.
According to the author, there are four basic types of people in this world, and a person’s type is determined by how he or she thinks of himself or herself in relation to others. The four types of people are: I’m okay, you’re okay; I’m okay, you’re not okay; I’m not okay, you’re okay; and I’m not okay, you’re not okay. Okay?
Now, this isn’t rocket science, and every field of study from psychology to theology has had great fun dismantling the author’s premise. In fact, one of the biggest slams a person can make against a preacher is to say, “All he does is preach I’m okay, you’re okay pop psychology”—meaning the preacher is much more concerned with keeping people in the pews than in teaching about Jesus, whose words, frankly, are sometimes quite offensive. There is much more to the Christian faith than let’s all feel really good about ourselves and each other. And as for psychology, the last thing a seriously neurotic patient needs to hear from his or her therapist is, “You’re okay—you’re doing just great.” The fact is, deep down, we all have problems. And when psychology and theology pretend we all live in a state of perfection, they do not serve much purpose.
But let’s get past all the criticism this idea has drawn over the years, and just look at the basic idea—the notion that people tend to fall into one of those four groups—I’m okay, you’re okay; I’m okay, you’re not okay; I’m not okay, you’re okay; and I’m not okay, you’re not okay. Among our circle of friends and acquaintances, don’t we know people who fall into each of those categories? And while I would resent any person who attempted to wedge the Christian faith into this simple model of psychology, I want to take a look at it in relation to modern Christianity.
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. According to this model, there are people in this world whose general outlook is this: I’m not okay, and neither are you. Well, that’s a beautiful way of thinking, isn’t it! I’ve known a few people like this over the years. In the workplace, this is the person who hangs his head in despair at everything from the sorry state of the copy machine to the ridiculous way the people in charge are running the company. This is one depressed human being. Because not only is every body he meets a complete idiot, he himself knows he can’t do anything right either. “Don’t give the job to me—I’d just mess things up like I did the last time.”
My experience is that these folks—these I’m not okay, you’re not okay people—tend not to be very religious. Or at least they are not very spiritual. If they are religious at all, I picture them as the modern incarnations of those medieval monks who went through life with flagellation whips, constantly beating themselves across the back in recognition of their—and everybody else’s—disgusting sinful nature. I’ve never figured out how beating oneself to a pulp is supposed to make God happy.
As unpleasant as this person is to be around, there is another type that is even worse—and sadly, much more common. This, of course, is the I’m okay, you’re not okay person. Over the years I’ve worked with lots of people who fit into this category. They are always quick to point out everybody else’s flaws.
I remember one such fellow in particular. I was working in a factory. It was boring, repetitive assembly line work which had the effect of numbing the mind after a while. The monotony of the assembly line was broken every few hours when the relief operator came around and, one person at a time, gave us a fifteen minute break. Of course, the assembly line never stopped, so when the relief operator showed up you went to the break area and watched all those poor suckers who were still stuck on the line. People sat in the break area with the other lucky few who were enjoying their quarter hour respite from the tedium of assembling light switches, or horns, or starters, or whatever other assembly line that imprisoned them 40 hours every week. And we spent that break time staring at the assembly line, chatting absent mindedly, and drinking wretched tasting coffee from one of those machines that dispenses the so-called coffee—that I swear tasted like battery acid—into a little paper cup.
You were around the same people every day, and soon you simply ran out of things to talk about. So you talked about each other. I suppose everybody is guilty of this to some extent, but Avery—there was a guy who was convinced he had the world all figured out, and that everybody else on this piece of trash planet was a complete idiot.
You could always count on Avery to make some keen observations about the people working on the line. Important little nuggets of wisdom, such as, “Look at that dress Jan is wearing. She must do all her shopping at the Goodwill Store. But then, no wonder—just between me and you, have you seen the bags under her eyes? Now there’s woman who likes to belt back a few whiskeys and go home with a different man every night.”
The problem, of course, is that everybody he sat with in the break area became his close friend and confidant. And when I took my place back on the dreaded assembly line, I could look over at the break area and see Avery and his newest confidant staring at me. And they would smile, and laugh, and I had no doubt that Avery was telling his new best friend all about my many shortcomings and character flaws, both real and imagined.
Sadly, I think that far too many Christians fall into this category—this I’m okay, you’re not okay category. In fact, that tends to be the message of what some call the evangelical wing of the church. Evangelical—now there is a word I would like for the liberal wing of the church to reclaim. I consider myself an evangelical. Evangelism is simply telling the Christian story. And the Christian story I try to tell every week is that we have a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and we can see that love when we look at Jesus. And I believe that once a person really experiences that love—really understands what it means to have a God who loves us that much—you can’t help but want to tell people about it. So I am an evangelical.
But unfortunately, that is one of those words that has been corrupted, perhaps beyond redemption, by people who think the evangelical message is this: You’re going to hell unless you think about religion just like I do. Now, there is a big difference between those two messages—between telling somebody that God loves them, and telling them they are going to hell.
But the entire Religious Right, from the modern version of evangelicals to the legalistic fundamentalists, build their faith around an I’m okay, you’re not okay theology. And I will never understand how people who claim to be Christians—people who claim to be followers of the one whose whole life said, “Love everybody and judge nobody”—I just don’t see how a Christian can look at another person and judge them worthy of hell for the way they practice religion.
And now we turn to perhaps the saddest of the four personality types—the I’m not okay, but you’re okay type. This is a tragic type of personality, really. And it seems to me that most of the people who fall into this category had terrible childhoods. These are the people who were raised by parents who never thought they were good enough. These people carry around a giant weight throughout their lives—the weight of low self-esteem.
I wish there was a good handbook for raising children. It is the most difficult job in the world. If we don’t correct our children now and then, they never learn. If we over-correct them, they don’t develop self-confidence. It is a difficult and tricky balance. But if we are to err, I hope we err on the side of giving our children too many accolades as opposed to too much criticism. Parents are like gods to their young children, and the thoughtless word from a parent can wound a child for life. “Did you color that? My goodness, I thought that a six-year-old would be able to stay in the lines better than that!” One minute later the parent has forgotten the sharpness of those words. For the child, the scar from those words may not heal in fifty years. Parenthood. What a responsibility.
And finally we come to the type of person we all hope to be: I’m okay, you’re okay. This can’t be the way we approach every person in the world. We can’t treat the Osama bin Ladens and Charles Manson’s of this world as if they were okay—they’re not! But this should be our working assumption about people in general. I’m okay, you’re okay.
I believe this is the heart of the Christian message. When Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, that can leave us a little confused. Because we have many different views of who and what God is. Who is it—what is it—we are supposed to love with all our heart, soul and mind? That must be why Jesus immediately tacks on the other great commandment, saying it is as vital as the first: Love your neighbor as yourself.
We might argue about who and what God is, but we all know who our neighbors are. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is a lot of wallop packed into that little five-word phrase! First of all, this loving our neighbor thing—that isn’t so easy. If we could add a word to that commandment, it would be much easier. How about this: Love your nice neighbor as yourself. That we can handle. I don’t mind loving somebody if they are nice—if they are willing to love me back. But that’s not what it says. How about this: Love your Christian neighbor as yourself. Ah, that would be a fairly simple matter, especially if we get to decide who is and who is not a proper Christian. But that’s not what it says either.
No, that word “neighbor” is meant to be pretty inclusive. We don’t get to pick our neighbors, we are just supposed to love them. But how much? How much are we supposed to love those often unlovable people God has scattered around us with no apparent concern about their worthiness of love? We are to love them as much as we love ourselves.
And that is very good news. We are supposed to love ourselves. We aren’t asked to love others more than ourselves, but rather to strike a healthy balance. To summarize the teaching of Jesus in a very short phrase: Love God, love others, love yourself.
Okay, let’s think this through. If we love God, we must surely love what God has made. We must love and care for this beautiful planet and all the life God has placed upon it. And that means that creation is good. And if we are to love our neighbors, that must mean that human beings are also good. And if we are to love ourselves, that must mean that we are good.
I don’t think Jesus would have a problem with the idea of I’m okay, you’re okay. But I suspect he would strengthen it a little bit. I think he would say, “I’m okay, you’re okay? Okay? How about, I’m a creation of God, and so are you. How about, I’m a miraculous spirit risen up from the dust and gazing out at the universe in wonder, and so are you. How about, I’m a spiritual being, springing forth from the power of God’s love, embodied in this human frame and capable of pouring God’s almighty love upon this hurting world, and so are you. How about, I am a physical temple of the Eternal Holy Spirit of God, carrying within me the very power and presence that called creation into being in the first place and holds this whole universe together moment to moment, and so are you.
Sure, I’m okay, you’re okay… to say the very, very least.”