Who am I? Can anyone really know themselves
Can anyone really know themselves – or their God, – unless they become truly honest? We humans, unlike most animals, inhabit so many cloaks and masks that even to ourselves we appear as elusive figures on a misty stage. More shadow than self.
The secret of happiness lies in rediscovering our true selves in relation to the universe and to God. Yet stripping off the accumulated cloaks and masks is seldom comfortable. Adventurous spirits might begin the journey with enthusiasm, but many set out in trepidation, fearing the naked truth. It will require bravery, honesty and humility of heart and mind.
So, who am I? The question not so much about the individual escaping from lostness or absorption in the collective. To that the common answer might reasonably be given: Be yourself. But how may I be myself when I do not know the self to be? The question is far more existential than simply asserting our individuality within the conforming mass. It asks, ‘What is my essential selfhood, my pure being, my unspoilt soul? Why is me, me? What is this ‘I am’ that somehow came into being?’
The stage was set long before we existed, by people and circumstances over which we had no influence. We struggle with the notion of non-existence. Hindu reincarnation or Judeo-Christian divine foreknowledge, a grasp of history even, cannot resolve adequately the existential conundrum posed by the fact that once I was not, but now I am
Genetically, we are human beings from the moment of conception. That is a matter of simple observational science. Yet genetics alone will not adequately explain our personhood or essential soul. Maybe Teillard de Chardin has a point when he says: ‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’ Even so, whether materially or spiritually conceived, genes, geist, or both, we may reasonably propose that this soul is essentially simple, insofar as it is pure, honest and true. The nurturing womb, does not of itself either corrupt us or create a false persona. We are born innocent of experience, free of deceit, a true self. Naked we come into the world in more senses than just physical. Yet the moment of birth is precisely where the difficulty – and the dishonesty – begins.
Already some nine months of age at birth, though we are biologically protected by the womb, we are also viscerally sensitised for good and ill by our mother’s physical and emotional experiences. And this will continue following the physical separation of birth. Our maternal dependence is absolute, not simply for nurture, but for emotional sustenance, too. Yet, the virgin self, as yet unreflective, is as absorbent as a piece of kitchen towel. It cannot yet discern between the sweet milk of love and the sour taste of rejection. This is why maternal bonding is so critical in these early years. Indeed, psychologists posit that the first three years of a child’s life are crucial to the emergence of the healthy self. To parody the words of Jesus: ‘What profit is it if a woman gains everything else, but at the price of her child’s soul?’
Can the damaged self be blamed wholly on inadequate motherhood? Hardly so. The prevalence of absent fathers creates another kind of rejection in our society and one that we have accepted all too passively.
Might not a lack of adequate parental bonding at this stage, instil rejection and the fear of rejection before the self can emerge with sufficient confidence to sustain its independence? To survive that fateful sense of rejection once established, we will seek attention by fair means or foul. Comfort me or I must comfort myself, begin to manipulate, assume guises, develop a selfish ego. The need for redemption of the self is writ deep! But any so-called original sin is less about guilt and far more about taint.
Our innocent child has entered a fallen world in which mask donning is the norm. We soon learn to act according to the expectations of our parents, wider family and friends. The cost of social acceptance is conformity to their inherited cultural framework.
In complex societies education will add a welter of information and expectation that pays scant regard to the individual child. Conformity is the rule except for the advantaged and gifted. Our freedom is within definite bounds with appropriate rewards and deprivations.
Sexual maturation adds another set of peer group pressures and state endorsed values, creating conflict between the often spiritual values of reticence and the secular values of licence. Passing from our teens to adulthood most of us have long since lost sight of our core self. We have an image to cultivate, a persona to project, a peer group to hang out with, a reputation to maintain. I am what I want my friends and family to want me to be!
In Western society, consumerism promises spiritual and emotional fulfilment through acquisition. Advertisers seduce us with the notion that our identity depends on buying their product. How easily we delude ourselves into believing that doing so will give us a self worth! We fail to see that without a discernible true self, our acquisitions are meaningless accretions. Our abundance of possessions becomes no more than another mask, cloaking us in unreality and superficiality, to compete with the other actors on the stage of life. In ‘keeping up with the Jones’, we may well leave behind our selves.
Outstanding achievement, academic, sporting, financial, social, creative, even notoriety, much of it good in itself, may layer further masks and cloaks on those already existing. We grow ever more unreal even to ourselves, like the lonely clown, the insecure financier, the performance driven athlete, the drug dependent model, the image driven celeb – all haunted by the fear of failure and rejection.
High achievers at least make money and perhaps consider the prize big enough to justify sacrificing their own selves to gain, if not the whole world, then at least a part of it. What of those who live vicariously through their heroes, where the ephemeral becomes more real to the fans than their own true selves. The delusion without the dough! Either way, the ‘rich’ and those who covet the life of the rich find it equally difficult to enter the world of reality – what some call the kingdom of heaven.
The search for being drives some to create mirage identities, online avatars. Not finding their true self they invent a false one to add to all the other personal falsehoods. We have something to hide. It’s nothing new. Invented identity did not originate with the Internet; we began to hide from ourselves and from others in the garden of Eden. And that in what should be the trusting context of marriage! That setting was also the origin of blame-shifting, or transference. We best maintain the guise by accusing others of hypocrisies that are also our own. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller called it ‘daemonism’ – blame others, lest they blame you.
Employing an analogy from carpentry, Jesus spoke of planks and specks in our eyes? Is this why we charge politicians, estate agents, journalists, bankers, advertisers, with hypocrisy, economy with the truth, when it is also true of us. As the occasion demands, we don the heavy cloak of self-righteousness and the mask of innocence to avoid being found out.
Truth and truth about ourselves becomes ever harder to find under the welter of these false identities. Even religion will serve as a cloak. This applies not only to the reprehensible behaviour of paedophile priests, but to the whole business of external rituals, public performance, mantra and creed that allows us to feel better, when probably it should, at least for a season, have the opposite effect. As Richard Rohr observes, ‘The right language is very often the best disguise for the wrong identity.’ The violent religious extremists have, of course, totally discredited their faith and are nothing but liars and hypocrites. In the name of imagined truth they are as far from truth and a true self as it is possible to be.
Therein lies a further problem for radicalism. It easily becomes just another mask, a stance, a reputation. We become shaped by the very status quo we react against and may be no nearer to our true selves than when we started.
What of secularism, even atheism, or science? Lovers of science and of truth are sometimes frustrated at the lack of integrity, the denial of evidence, the self-aggrandisement, and the religious and atheistic bigotry that has dogged the noble path of scientific progress. It is made the worse today by military pressures and commercial funding that sets the agenda and the rewards. Many such masks come with built-in blinkers! Sadly, it is difficult to commend modern science as necessarily the pursuit of truth.
Secularism itself is a house built on sand and the result of shallow, dishonest thinking. Agnosticism is mostly mere laziness. The great scientist Werner Heisenberg said, ‘The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.’ You just need to drink deeper – but it costs to do so.
We turn to the fuller world of the arts, where every serious artist, like any serious writer, pursues the path of truth, and understands that being true to yourself is key. Not that it is simple, for it means journeying beyond the safe but arbitrary bounds of received culture. This may involve misunderstanding, social ostracism, poverty, doubt and fear, even persecution and censorship. In that, it shares characteristics with the true seeker after God, with the genuine scientist, too.
At root the way to see truly, to discover truth and life, is one that requires humility. It is only in the admission that we do not know that we first begin to learn. Admit that you know almost nothing about almost everything and you have started on the path to enlightenment!
A clue lies in Jesus’ words, ‘Unless you become as little children you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Most certainly those words do not imply an abandonment of reason or experience, or an unwholesome naivety, or a surrender of ourselves to a controlling figure. Rather, they require that we regain the honesty of the newborn child. Yet there is no simple going back; we must journey forward, stripping off the false until we are again as naked souls. We must be truly ‘born again’, but it requires elective humility to be so honest, so pure of heart.
Bank tellers detect forgeries by familiarising themselves with the genuine. We will only discern the truth about ourselves by acquainting ourselves with the truly true. Jesus described himself as the way, the truth and the life. He also said, ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’
The gate is small and the way is narrow, not because it is narrow-minded, killjoy or puritan, but because it is honest. The false persona, the baggage of ego, will not pass through; we must travel light to find the light.
An ancient poem sheds further light by recognising a providential, omnipotent God creating our inmost being in the womb. It suggests that the self-determination of our DNA may be subject to more than a little divine influence, an influence which may also account for the origin of the ‘me’. If so, then we will only find our true self in relation to God as we undergo the journey of mask-stripping, of returning to the spiritual nakedness of the new-born, so that we might be reclothed in truth.
It is for this reason that some parts of the primitive church baptised people naked before adorning them in white robes that spoke less about moral perfection and more about the honest soul readied for the journey that lies ahead. For in the radical regeneration of our selves begins a reconnection with the Holy Spirit, a truer growing up, a fuller life that opens the vistas beyond our illusions. ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’
© John Houghton 2016
This message was added on Saturday 16th April 2016