Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What is the True Self?

The closer I get to some people, the less I seem to understand them. Most of us are complicated, unpredictable, subject to various feelings and moods as well as desires often hidden from others and ourselves. We surprise ourselves and others; the result can hurt relationships of all kinds, which require honesty and truth.

In reading recently a piece by Joshua Knobe in the New York Times, I was reminded that there are several divergent approaches to the enigmatic self. In academic philosophy, it is assumed that we find our true selves in those moments of reflection when we think about the central values of our lives.This assumes that the central feature of being human is being rational, so our urges and emotions are not fundamentally who we are.

If we reduce ourselves to desires, whether repressed or acknowledged, we are (contra Freud) betraying our true selves. Most people would dispute this philosophical view, contending that the true self, to the extent that it is knowable, involves those various urges and desires, repressed and expressed.

Knobe finds neither side convincing, leaving us with the mystery of who we are: is there an unchanging essence within me, or am I shaped by the way I value my life? I am no doubt the sum total of the various choices and judgments I have made, the various experiences I have had; I have become who I am because of the people I have known. This would seem to include love.

When I think of this topic, I recall the work of Thomas Merton (and the valuable study of the true self in Merton undertaken by James Finley). Merton does not talk about the soul as such but about the essential self, in contrast to the false selves we assume, the masks we wear in society. The true self is that part of our unchanging essence, he says, the part of ourselves known to God.

In Raids on the Unspeakable, Merton writes, "If we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth."

How easy it is to protect the fictitious identities we assume, how hard to find the truth buried beneath the false identities. To have an identity, one must be awake and aware, Merton says, rooting out the lies we tell ourselves about who we think we are.

The topic is important because it involves truth and honesty, with ourselves and with others. It raises questions not easily answered.

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