Who You Are When No One is Watching
John Wooden once famously said: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
But is that test of character accurate?
I was raised on this idea and spent a lot of effort trying to be a better version of myself when I was alone. Since I started following Jesus as a kid, I've been doing this for decades now. I often resonated with the Apostle Paul's words in his letter to the church in Rome.
"I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?" Romans 7:15-24
Here's what I've concluded after many years of thinking my character was defined by who I am when I'm alone... I'm not the person I wish I was. I wish I didn't think the things I often think. I wish I didn't say the things I sometimes say. I wish I never felt the way I occasionally do toward the people around me.
I was having lunch with a good friend recently when he dropped an incredible perspective on me. I'd paraphrase what he said this way: "You are not the real you when you’re alone. You’re the worst you when no one is watching. You were designed for community."
What a liberating idea.
Consider this practically. I try to work out most days of the week. I have enough equipment that I can do most exercises at home. As an introvert, this is more comfortable as well. But I've learned that I get a way better workout if I go to the gym and participate in a class with others. The presence of other people pushes and motivates me far beyond what I would do alone.
So is the test of my exercise ability when I'm in the gym, or when I'm alone?
Or consider marriage. Why is it that opposites often attract? An introvert marries an extrovert. A night owl marries a morning person. A person who shows up fifteen minutes early marries someone who shows up fifteen minutes late, and all hell breaks loose. One of the things that initially drew me to my wife Michelle was that I liked how I felt when I was around her. She was totally different than me and I was intrigued by it. I remember feeling self-conscious around other girls, but I felt better about myself with her. To this day, she continually draws out a better version of myself.
So am I the person I've become through marriage, or am I really who I'd be if I was single?
In the countless ways this plays out, I believe the truest test of who you are is not the version of you when you're alone. God designed us for community, and it is only when we find life-giving relationships that we fully become the people we truly are. It's also taken me years to realize that not all people close to you are life-giving relationships. This often takes courage and boldness to recognize and adjust accordingly.
So let go of the guilt of attempting to become that version of yourself in private. The alone version of you is the worst version of you. Instead, look for the people who bring you to life and spend time with them as you become fully who you were designed to be.
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