In Search of the True Self

JOSHUA KNOBE

Mark Pierpont used to be an important figure in the evangelical Christian effort to help “cure” gay people of their homosexual desires. He started out just printing up tracts and handing them out in gay bars, but his ministry grew over time, and eventually he was traveling the world and speaking to crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. There was just one problem. Mark Pierpont himself was gay. He continued to feel sexual desires toward other men and was constantly engaged in an effort to suppress them. In the documentary film “Protagonist,” Pierpont movingly describes his inner conflict, saying that he sometimes felt an almost physical revulsion at his own desires and would then think: “Good. I hate this.  I hate sin, just like God hates sin.”

Faced with a case like this one, we might be tempted to give Pierpont some simple advice.  We might tell him that what he really needs to do is just look deep within and be true to himself. Indeed, this advice has become a ubiquitous refrain.  It can be found in high art and literature (Polonius’s “To thine own self be true”), in catchy pop songs (Madonna’s “Express Yourself”) and in endless advertisements for self-help programs and yoga retreats (“Unlock your soul; become your authentic self”).  It is, perhaps, one of the distinctive ideals of modern life.

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