Sunday, May 26, 2013

Who are we, really?

I have awakened from a dream recently to realize that the person I was in my dream is not my present self but an ageless adult, sort of a composite of how I think of myself, as if I were permanently 35.

And I connected this realization to an earlier post (April 30: Genuine Freedom) and to other musings about the mysterious inner me, the "selfless self of self," as the poet G. M. Hopkins called it.

Who are we at the core of our being? That is the question. Am I the product of my conscious thought, produced by the brain, embodied in my mortal flesh, or am I an enfleshed spirit or, as I was raised to think in parochial school, a soul encased in a body?

Without considering for a moment the immortal center of my being called the soul, I think of all the many couples who, married in their twenties, find that they have drifted apart and become divorced in their forties, because they have changed.  What part of them has actually changed? Of course, we are changing and growing constantly biologically; our tastes and behavior and attitudes change as do our values.

But the man or woman of 45-50 who is more mature than the bride or groom of 25, with different interests from his or her partner, remains essentially the same person.  The question then is, what can psychology and philosophy tell us about who that person is, that self that might grow but remains essentially true to its original form?

"What are we at our core, before anything, before everything?"  This question, posed at the opening of an article by Abigail Tucker (in the Smithsonian 1-13) comes from a researcher at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, where scientists have been studying toddlers and babies to see if altruism is an innate human element. It seems too early to say for sure that the answer is definitively 'yes.'  But I cite this example as a fundamental question underlying much of the important work I sometimes read about being done by people with infinitely more knowledge than I have or will ever have about the complexities of the human personality.

I remember, too, a psychologist introducing to a workshop I attended some years ago the distinction between "the pattern" and "the person": when we think a friend or partner or colleague is unbearable, annoying, or otherwise unpleasant to be around, what we are reacting to is the behavior pattern that this person displays. I think of several people I know who seldom listen, talk incessantly about themselves and are clearly wound up emotionally. I shun their company.

Yet these people, beneath the surface, are bright, caring individuals who are lovable--if I can separate myself from the surface pattern to see the real person beneath. A challenging "if."  How close this approach is to Freudian or Jungian ideas of the psyche or self is something I do not know, but it helped me understand a basic human issue. Perhaps it is related to the belief of Robert Louis Stevenson and others ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde") who contended in Victorian times that the human person is not one but two--a divided self, half good, half evil.

Although this seems too simplistic today, there remains in us a sense that our real selves remain mysterious. Even as we shun encountering them, we meet them in dreams and see them reflected in films and literature.  If other people are hard to understand (and love), we tend to remain hard to understand even by ourselves.

One of the most satisfying examinations of all this, on the spiritual level, for me has been the work of Thomas Merton and in particular the study focusing on his idea of the true self by James Finley: Merton's Palace of Nowhere.  Merton, having read very widely, was attracted to Blake as a graduate student at Columbia and then, as a Trappist monk, steeped himself in the mystical tradition of both Christianity and the East.

I will try to sum up some key aspects of Finley's study of what Merton meant by our true identity in contrast to the false self we create as a public persona or mask.  The contemplative tradition of emptiness and silence, for Merton, is the highest form of self-realization; it reveals that the person I am is not limited to the individual I am.

Involved here is the loss of the false self when, in contemplation, our being becomes one with the being of God, who is Being itself.  The person, that is, transcends everything in his or her union with God. The self that we thought ourselves to be vanishes ("He who loses his life shall find it," as Jesus said) because of love.

And this brings us back to Brennan Manning, whose death last month prompted a brief post here that expresses the same basic Mertonian idea very directly: The true self is the one loved by God; every other identity is an illusion.

Merton put it this way:  "Learning to be oneself means learning to die [to the self] in order to live. It means discovering in the ground of one's being a self, which is ultimate and indestructible..."  So, for him, the soul is the mature personal identity, the true self. Yet the question, "Who are you when you do not exist?"--the ultimate question we all ponder when we think of death--can never be answered by the mind. It requires what is difficult for many: a leap of faith.

I hope at least some of this makes sense and that it will lead readers unfamiliar with Merton to read him as well as Finley's classic book, which is challenging because the language of mysticism defies the limits of human language. But few questions are as important as who we are and what happens to us when we are here no more.

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