What is Self?

heroIn the traditional Hero’s Journey, it’s the journey itself that, to a great extent, forms and informs the hero. Real life is much the same, but the main character, the hero of your journey, is you. Your Self. Many traveling companions join us at different stages of our life journey, but our only constant flesh-and-blood companion is Self. Many of us spend a good deal of the journey trying to come to terms with this constant companion. Who is this Self? What is this Self?

Several years ago, my husband’s grandmother was invited to attend a reunion dinner of the “Golden Circle,” alumni of the college she attended, who had graduated 50+ years ago. The invitation included a photograph of the previous gathering of the Golden Circle. She carefully studied it, trying to figure out whether she knew any of those “old people.” She said she didn’t recognize any of them. Until she went to reunion. When she looked into their eyes, she knew and remembered them.

Our eyes seem to be windows into our unique selves, and our bodies seem to be the packages that contain the essence of Self. The body is certainly the most visible part of self. The mysterious self includes mind and emotion, but what about our spirits? Our souls? We humans have invented words – mind, spirit, heart, soul – to describe the innermost parts of Self, but there’s no consensus on what mind, spirit, heart, and soul are. Self is ultimately a mystery. Still, it’s a mystery worth exploring.

There are a variety of ways to look at self, but I see five viewpoints. Here are two. I’ll post more next week.

Viewpoint 1: The individual self does not exist. We are all one big cosmic whole. That thought is pretty mind-blowing, as my generation liked to say. (We also wanted to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” as the Coke ad went. We still would, but somehow it hasn’t worked out yet.) I can comprehend a non-existent self only if I think of each of us as a thought in the mind of God, melding into God’s grand created story of the world. And maybe that’s what happens – or part of what happens. But then, even saying “each of us” in the sentence above implies individuality. Then, too, we each have to deal with the present moment in which my decisions are not yours and yours are not mine. Our decisions may affect both of us – and the world around us – but as entwined as we are, each of us individually makes those decisions. We are on similar but separate journeys.

Viewpoint 2: The self exists but is innately sinful. To become sinless, we must deny our selves. “Life is not all about you,” the parent/teacher voice says. That voice is right – and wrong. It’s wrong, because I can view life only through my eyes and touch it only with my hands. I smell it with my nose, taste it with my tongue, hear it with my ears, and think about it only with my mind. In that sense, my life is about me: my thoughts, my dreams, my vision – or my decision to deny these. (And we do a mix of accepting and denying all the time.) My life is the story of my journey, and in the end, it will be my epitaph on the gravestone.

But of course, we know what parents and teachers meant with the life-is-not-all-about-you mantra. They wanted us to consider others, and they were right in the sense that life is not all about you or me. Life is much larger than individual selves taking their own individual paths. Although it’s possible to journey all the way through life looking at our own feet or navel-gazing, that’s a pretty narrow way to go, long on insight and short on vision.

A living, growing, open-eyed faith looks up instead of looking down and tunneling in. It stretches out to view a broad landscape and a choice of paths. It participates with a variety of other travelers, exchanging what we carry, both giving and receiving. So, yes, your life is about you. But not only about you. My life is about me. But not only about me. Wholeness – health – is found in the balance between caring for self and caring for the world we travel through.

Achieving that balance is challenging, especially for those who were taught that we’re born sinners. Young children generallysanta believe what they’re told. If they’re told there’s a Santa Claus, an Easter bunny, or a tooth fairy, they believe it. Their worldview is black and white, no gray in-betweens. Even in our early school years, we tend to believe that the significant adults in our lives know what they’re talking about. We generally believe that they have the answers, so most of us don’t question too much.

So when we were told we were born sinful, we believed it. We understood that upon our initial entry into the world, we were fundamentally flawed. There was something essentially wrong about our self, and that belief became our foundation. It became one of those controlling beliefs I posted about previously.

In the church I grew up in, we were born sinners but lived in a period of grace until the “age of accountability.” The problem was, no one could pinpoint the age at which you became accountable. Was it nine? Eleven? Thirteen? At any rate, we started out on the negative side of the balance sheet. We were born deficient. As we grew and the self began to blossom, we were taught that in order to move to the positive side of the balance sheet (and assure that we went to heaven, not hell), we had to deny our selves. In short, we began life needing to apologize, and some of us have been apologizing for self ever since.

Now it’s true that we all start life as self-centered infants, treating the world as if it were our own little kingdom. That’s pretty much the lowest rung on the morality ladder. So that lends a lot of credence to being born a sinner. Except that infants are pre-moral, meaning they don’t make conscious moral choices (which lends a lot of credence to the “age of accountability” view). Still, being taught we’re sinners from the get-go pretty much ingrains it into our developing identity, and off we go on our journey, not too thrilled with Self, our constant traveling companion.


In next week’s post I’ll continue to explore Self and this journey through Life Unmapped. If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.

Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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