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Painful selves

Fiery trials bring about true authenticity


During last summer’s wave of racial protests, activists set fire to Nashville’s Metro Courthouse. At that point, Daniel Elder, a successful choral composer who lived only blocks away, had enough. The sight of activists smashing windows and spraying graffiti on the walls of a monument to civic order, cheered on by his friends on social media, goaded him to express some thoughts on Instagram. “Enjoy burning it all down, you well-intentioned, blind people. I’m done.”

He meant, “I’m done with Instagram,” and immediately deleted his account to prove it. But Elder was more done than he knew.

Within days the outcry against him, from friends, colleagues, and total strangers, was such that his publisher had to respond. Company officials wrote an apology for him and suggested he post it. Only it was not a suggestion. When he refused (“I chose to be that guy who didn’t [apologize],” he told Reason magazine), GIA Publications officially cut ties with him. Labeling his original post as “incendiary”—an interesting choice of words, given the circumstances—GIA assured the public of its opposition to racism in all its forms and its commitment to the work of rooting it out.

It shouldn’t take courage to stand for the truth that arson is counterproductive.

The only way one could find racism in Elder’s post is by not reading it, but mob cancellation is an old, tired story by now. What’s striking in this case is Elder’s reaction to it. After a year of rude awakenings and hard knocks, he concluded an interview with the libertarian journal Quillette with these words: “I say this as an encouragement to the silent majority all around us: If you’re willing to endure the painful trial of self, you will be better for it in the end. And, with enough of us, the world will be better, too.”

It shouldn’t take courage to stand for the truth that arson is counterproductive, and maybe even bad, but that’s where we are. The good news is that the man in the maelstrom has made some important discoveries. For a start, he’s “not that guy.” In the fires of controversy, he feels something solid underneath, as opposed to the shifting standards of contemporary virtue. At age 35, he has found, or at least has begun to find, his authentic self.

Popular culture carelessly assumes that a person’s authentic self, or identity, is a product of that person’s deepest desires and proclivities. “Be who you are” echoes in every media corner, a platitude that bypasses the question of how we know who we are. We are not prefab masterpieces to be revealed and celebrated, but rough stone to be sculpted—by birth and by circumstances, by influences and influencers, and by what we believe is true.

“Who we are” is all these things, ever shifting. But Authentic Selves have a semi-divine status today: To attack someone’s identity, or the expression of that identity, is the ultimate crime. In this moral framework, condemning the arson of rage is worse than arson itself, and the culprit deserves to have his career wrecked. But the authenticity police have it all backward: Selves are made by opposition, not affirmation. That’s the painful test that Daniel Elder endured, fighting through it to a new sense of freedom and stability.

If that’s the case, even for a banal truth that should be obvious to everyone, how much more for an everlasting truth? “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” writes Peter (who knew what it was to fail the test). “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12, 14). The Spirit witnesses to the presence of Christ in our lives. If He shows up enough for us to be insulted for our Christlikeness, the pain is the blessing.

And when we see Him as He is, we’ll know ourselves at last.


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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