What is Most Personal is Most General

by Justin Borger


“Somewhere here I want to bring in a learning which has been most rewarding, because it makes me feel so deeply akin to others. I can word it this way. What is most personal is most general. There have been times when in talking with students or staff, or in my writing, I have expressed myself in ways so personal that I have felt I was expressing an attitude which it was probable no one else could understand, because it was so uniquely my own…. In these instances I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal, and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others. This has helped me to understand artists and poets as people who have dared to express the unique in themselves.”

– Carl Rogers, On Becoming A Person, p. 26

What strikes me about this wonderful passage is, first of all, how true it is and, second, how easily it can be abused. On the one hand, there is an ironic universality to the particularities of our individual experience, isn’t there? This seems to be manifestly true. But on the other hand, when this principle becomes absolute, it is nothing less than a recipe for the most abjectly idolatrous navel gazing imaginable. If I am to find what is universal in my particular, individual experience I cannot help but absolutize me. The world will suddenly revolve around me and, like Narcissus himself,  I will see nothing besides my own face in the pool. So, there seems to be a very fine line to walk here…. How can we keep from falling? Biblically, I think a Christian response to this principle would have to focus on what it means to be created in the image of God. This would provide a way of escape when it comes to the question of idolatry and it would also provide a way for us to acknowledge the fundamental truth that what we find in our particular experiences, even in the deepest recesses of our consciousness, at some level, reflects something universal as image bearers of God. It would provide a way of lifting our focus from self to the other.