Note: This was originally published in my October Newsletter. Since this is an introduction to my new blog & video series, “How to Thrive in Chaos,” I decided to repost it here, to give readers some context.
The idea of building a culture with yourself might strike you as odd. We think of a culture as being made up of a group of people, and their values, art, history, institutions, and traditions. However for the purposes of this post, a culture occurs whenever disparate components come together to form something new and -hopefully- better than the individual parts.
I have chosen to frame this topic in this way partly as an antidote to Self-Care Culture. On its surface, self-care is obvious and necessary. But self-care also provides a profoundly low standard for how to live your life. Caring for yourself in terms of basic needs- sleep, high quality food, rest, friendships, etc. used to be taken for granted. Today, it is a whole industry trying to fill a screaming need in our overworked society.
Self-care is fine as far as it goes, but I think it barely scratches the surface of what we need to do in order to thrive as human beings.
When I say that we need to build culture with ourselves, I am using the word “culture” almost more in the food sense. Disparate high quality ingredients that come together to undergo a transformation and – voilà! – produce a delicious and satisfying end result. When cheese is made, there is a basic initial product (milk), and then all kinds of other necessary and almost magical components get added. Most importantly, a culture of bacteria is added to the milk that is specific to the kind of cheese you want to make. If you don’t have the culture, you don’t have the cheese.
When I speak about an individual’s culture, I am referring to all the component parts that make up who you are: your history, values, strengths, failings, habits, preferences, etc. It includes how you respond to stress, how you unwind at night, how you conduct yourself in a conflict, and what kinds of foods you like to cook yourself (or order out).
The biggest obstacle to a strong self-culture is created when our society offers us physical comfort, constant entertainment, and a steady stream of information and content that relieves us of our need to exert ourselves intellectually.
If our society is going to survive, we must recover our ability to have a top-notch self-culture. If we are to thrive as individuals, we must take charge of our individual cultures and bring them into alignment with God’s design for humans.
So what does this look like? First, we are going to look at a Biblical example of someone who had a strong self-culture and was able to navigate through extremely turbulent times. Second, I’m going to give you some practical steps to think through what you want your culture to look like.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Daniel. The story begins when Jersualem was beseiged and taken by the Babylonian king. Many of Israel’s people, as well as the articles from the temple, were carried off to Babylon. Among the people who were taken captive were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
The captives were to be educated and assimilated into Babylonian culture so that they could serve in the King’s house. They were stripped of their Jewish identity, most likely castrated, and were given essentially a college education in the history, culture, and dark arts of Babylonia. The goal was complete assimilation. The Babylonian King wanted to benefit from his recent conquest’s cream of the crop, without the threat of any kind of uprising down the road.
It is in this context that Daniel’s self-culture starts to shine.
Throughout this book, we see Daniel doing a number of proactive, and potentially even dangerous things to preserve his self-culture in order to resist assimilation. It should be noted here that his self-culture was very much in alignment with the Hebrew culture of his faith. The idea of self-culture is not a replacement for your faith culture. Our faith culture informs and adorns our self-culture, and the quality of our self-culture feeds back into our faith community. It is a mutually life-giving relationship.
Let’s look at Daniel’s self-culture. In Babylonia, he was no longer able to practice the fullness of his faith – going to the Temple, studying Torah with the Jewish scholars, celebrating the Sabbath with his family and friends.
So what did Daniel do? He refused to eat the portions set aside for him from the King’s table (a practice that acted out the dependence of the courtiers and royal officials on the generosity of the king), and insisted on eating a separate, clean diet of his choosing.
He kept his prayer habit consistent, and when it became illegal to keep praying to God, his private prayer habit was so strong and solid that he was able to keep it up even in the face of possible death.
And despite being forced to learn what was essentially the sorcery or witchcraft of the Babylonians, he was able to keep and cultivate his God-given ability to interpret dreams.
Christians often feel out of place in the world, and that is a good thing. But Christians in the U.S. and most Western countries can’t even imagine what this must have been like for Daniel. Imagine being removed from your family and hometown, forbidden from ever attending Church again, and being forced to learn astrology and witchcraft in order to serve the powerful leader who killed or captured everyone you know! How would you stay close to God in such a setting? How would your faith hold up? Would you keep thriving or would you collapse?
Daniel is an inspiration to us all: he shows us what it looks like to be proactive in keeping a self-culture consistent and strong in any circumstance.
Thankfully, we (in the U.S.) are not facing anything so heinous and traumatic on a national scale as what Daniel faced. But we are facing turbulence and uncertainty.
If you are struggling with maintaining peace and feel that you are not thriving, the place to start is your self-culture. What are your prayer habits? How do you “reset” when you have been thrown off by fearful headlines? Are you intentionally seeking out life-giving people or do you feel helpless?
There is much more that needs to be said about what this looks like.
Over the next few weeks, I will be doing a series of blog posts that will be a deeper dive into several facets of what it looks like to create a strong self-culture. We will look at the different major events in Daniel’s life as guiding principles, reflect on what Jesus promised to be for us, and look at some practical tools and habits you can implement right away to majorly upgrade your self-culture and get back on the road to thriving.
For now, I invite you to meditate on the life of Daniel. Re-read the first the book of Daniel (or at least chapters 1-6) with an eye to learning from a true master of self-culture. Daniel knew who he was, and he knew who his God was. Daniel doubtlessly experienced unbelievable emotional turbulence as well as unthinkable trauma. Daniel faced the temptation be brainwashed by a pagan king, and to submit to a command to pray to the king instead of his God. It was his powerful self-culture that allowed him live in a culture so hostile to his faith, and yet to thrive.