In my previous blog entry, I talked about sitting with your sin (or if you prefer, sitting with your shit). I’ve mentioned that I do this as part of meditative prayer, but my entry on meditation was all about getting the body and mind ready to contemplate. Once I get there, what does sitting with my sin look like? If my sin is as much a part of me as my shadow, how do I think about the various parts of my self?
Once I find a place of stillness and balance in prayer, then I can sit with my self, and the attitude I cultivate in these moments is interest. “Isn’t it interesting that I keep repeating the same harmful action, the same self-talk? Isn’t it interesting that I keep having the same negative feelings and attitudes (resentment, self-righteousness, anger, fear, judgmentalness, vindictiveness, selfishness, greed, indifference to others, laziness, vanity, self-justification, schadenfreude)? Isn’t it interesting that I am avoiding certain tasks/activities? Isn’t it interesting that I return to certain painful memories, to the parts that still live within me from when I was 8 years old (or 13 or 35)?” Being interested in parts of your self (and not judgmental) allows you to explore your whole being.
I create a dialogue between the still center I create in meditation and the components of my self. I am in the temporary stillness, but that stillness also sits outside of my self at a distance that allows me to see the interworkings of my life. I am both the observer and the observed. In the calmness of that moment is the clarity that is necessary for change, and that distanced stillness also makes compassion for my own flaws possible.
I’ve worked out an admittedly detailed system for understanding the psychological and spiritual components of my self, but I feel a little sheepish about sharing it. What could be more navel-gazing than to assume my system of navel-gaving might be useful to others? There’s really nothing original here; I’ve cobbled together the parts from many other thinkers. But the measure of a theory for me is its usefulness. My wife has found this discussion useful, so perhaps you might, too.
At the heart of my understanding of the self is the relationship/tension between who I am and what I do.
“Who I am” deals with issues of identity, that which I think is long-term or permanent/unshakable about me (which means that I tend to defend it when these things are being attacked). I am a man, a father, a “nice guy,” a teacher, a husband, a heterosexual, a hard worker, a Christian, an administrator, a liberal, a musician, an American, a Southerner, a Dukie. Borrowing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and James Baldwin’s phrase, I believe myself to be white. Some of these are my personality/characteristics; some are achievements and experiences; some are roles.
Some of these roles are cast and some are chosen. It feels like I am cast into the role of “man,” where my role as “teacher” is something I chose. Personality and role can interact. My personality gravitates toward niceness, but “nice guy” can also become a role. I can enact that (and am expected to) even when I don’t feel nice. And so roles can become entrapping and confining. They are necessarily less than who I am (I am more than the sum of my roles), and if I spend too much time in a role (even a chosen one) I can become aware of how much of my self is left behind.
Roles can also be performed. Although I’m not hyper-masculine, it’s fun to play at caveman masculinity when I am in bed with my wife. Playing at a role allows you to expand the sense of who you are without having to commit to an identity long-term. This is part of the power of storytelling; it allows us to try on other roles/identities, and this role-occupying can be potentially transformative (particularly if you become a fan invested in a particular text/universe, revisiting it frequently and giving it emotional power). In such a way, trying on roles can feed back into who I am.
“Who I am” doesn’t necessarily refer to a single core of my being. As I noted in my previous blog entry, both light and dark (Jung’s shadow self, Paul’s “thorn in my side”) are part of my identity, and we need to make peace with that. “Who I am” may be best thought of as more than just two sides. Identity also involves the multiple voices in my head, the self-talk and scripts. I am legion, as internal family systems teaches us.
Although we tend to think of “who I am” as our personality, we are more than our personality (though society typically reduces us to our personality). I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s discussion with Krista Tippett on the “On Being” podcast, and they talked about how one of the discoveries from their depression was the sense that there is something that still exists even when depression has pretty much squelched your personal characteristics. That thing that is left over might be called my soul. It is the humanity that carries on even when personality has been nearly extinguished (by depression, advanced aging, or catastrophic illness, for instance). I care for such loved ones not because of what they can do but because of who they are (just as I care for an infant, who has little personality and no effectivity). There’s something holy about caring for a loved one who can’t give you anything tangible back. It’s an acknowledgment of our central unshakable unearned identity, that of “child of God.”
There is often a tension between my sense of who I am and what I do. (For existentialists, we are nothing but our actions. There is no central definition of who we are outside of what we do.) My actions don’t always reflect who I think I am (thus causing the need to confess sin), and so I feel the need to alter one or the other. Either I need to revise my understanding of who I am in light of what I do, or I need to change what I do to bring it more in line with my sense of self.
Shame and guilt are often the reaction to discrepancies between who I am and what I do. I think of guilt as being directed toward the action; we feel that we should change our action to make it more consonant with who we are. Shame tends to be directed toward who we are; I feel shame about some core aspect of who I am. Guilt can be useful in helping us change what we do. Shame is more complicated because it attaches to our identity. On the one hand, shame can be paralyzing; on the other, it opens our self up to accepting and healing the shame of others once you have made peace with the shamed parts of your self. (You may have a different meaning for those words, but that’s how they’re used/defined in my consideration of the self. I’m borrowing from Brene Brown here.)
(Your occupation is both a role and it is what you do. In our utilitarian society, it’s easy to let your occupation to be a provider of your worth (or your lack of paid occupation to lead to a sense that you are worthless.) Part of the Republican mentality is that if you aren’t productive – usually meaning “getting paid for what you do” – you aren’t a full member of society. There’s little discussion of what it owed to someone simply because of their humanity.)
“What we do” has two components: our conscious actions and our habits. Our conscious actions are what we list when someone asks “how was your day?” We talk about the decisions we made and the choices we took in certain situations. It’s very easy to reduce our sense of “what we do” to those actions. Such actions, after all, are what we tell stories about, either the fairly mundane story of our day or the stories of heroes and artists.
You can think of heroes and artists as making two different kinds of conscious choices. We tell stories of heroes who take action in the world (without overt action, there is no hero). We also valorize the artist, who rearranges the world in aesthetically interesting ways that are a reflection of who the artist is. Ordinary people can act as heroes and/or artists in their own lives. We can take an aesthetic pleasure in gardening, for instance, as a reflection of who we are. We can intervene in the world in ways that are an expression of our values. The stories we tell about heroes and artists model for us these ways of being in the world as an action figure, and society loves to tell these stories.
We spend much less time talking about habits, though they occupy a good portion of our time. We leave out habitual behaviors from the story of our day (we don’t talk about the normal drive to work or brushing our teeth, for instance). Habit is vital, however, and it is powerful. Without habits we would have to allocate brain power for mundane tasks, and so putting ourselves on autopilot frees up our cognition for higher level activity.
Our habits are loops that don’t feel quite conscious/chosen. This is true for good habits (like brushing your teeth) and bad ones (like eating out of boredom). Bad habits in particular can feel like possession, as if you’ve been taken over by someone/something else that is in violation of who we conceive ourselves to be. Negotiating the tension between bad habits and your identity can be difficult because bad internal loops can seem like so much a part of you that you can’t intervene cognitively to stop them.
Habits are obviously created by conscious actions that have been internalized and automated, and many bad habits are patterns of action that have outlived their usefulness. In the stories we tell, we often neglect the power of habit because it’s not dramatic to depict. The long hours of training to be a boxer might be summarized in a brief montage on the way to a climactic scene of a championship fight, but that doesn’t give a visceral sense of how important habit-building is to achievement. It makes it seems that achievement is based on our conscious heroic actions when it often has much to do with boring practice and habit-building.
Habits are necessary but they too can be confining. If too much of what you’re doing is by habit, then you don’t have a strong sense that what you’re doing is a consciously chosen expression of who you are. You need to be able to see the heroism and/or artistry in what you do, or habit will swallow up your day and you won’t be able to recognize yourself in your actions.
Less apparent (but still important) components of the self are what I don’t do and who I’m not. Much of an identity definition is often based on who you’re not (to be white is to be not black; to be middle class is to be not poor and not rich. And thus the power of definitions of the Other) or by taking pride in what you don’t do (“I’m a good person: I don’t lie and cheat;” “I’m a good citizen: I’ve never had to go on welfare,” “I’m not a racist: I don’t use slurs”). Also inaction can be difficult to reconcile with who you think you are (for example, “I think of myself as a good person but I don’t volunteer and give back to the community;” “I think my health is important but I don’t exercise”). Inaction is much less visible than action, but it also is composed of important choices and habits.
The last component of the self is the products of what you do. Here I’m referring to what happens when you put what you do into the outside world. I practiced piano privately, but when I started playing for my church choir, that put my doing into the world (intangibly and impermanently, but still out there). Once your product is in the world, you lose a certain amount of control over it. People can judge it harshly; people can use it in ways you never imagined; or people can ignore it. Each of these is horrible in their own way, particularly since putting your product into the world is an attempt to communicate something about yourself, to connect with others.
(Imagination and connection are important throughout this understanding of the self. Your ability to imagine yourself in new roles feeds into your identity. A certain amount of imagination is required to do any truly chosen action. Imagination is necessary to create products that enter the world. Our desire for connection exists throughout. Sharing an identity (Dukie) or an activity (choir) creates moments when we can connect to others more easily; that’s how community happens. As I said, sending your stuff out into the world is a call for connection. Your roles are obviously a way of being in the world.)
So there’s a hope imbedded in the act of putting your stuff into the world. The difficulty is in not confusing the products of what you do with who you are. It’s very tempting to believe that if your product sucks, then you suck. But you have relatively little control over whether it is perceived to suck; all you can control is the process of what you are doing.
The primary payoff (at last!) for sitting with the self in this manner may be this: to focus on what you are doing, to try to make sure that this is a reflection of who you are, and not to put too much focus on how the products of your actions are evaluated. Take pleasure in and responsibility for what you do as an expression of who you are and try not to tie your products to your identity too strongly (either negatively or positively). I have to trust in the doing and to see that as fulfilling in and of itself, to see that doing as sacred.
Religion happens when I connect my own doing and being with the invisible network of actions and attitudes of the children of God throughout the world and across time. By cleaning the muck out of my life, by more closely aligning what I do with what I am, I am better able to let God’s energy flow through me to the world. Therein lies the promise of purpose in the beloved community.