With this post I return to the writing of That Which We Already Know. Gosh, it’s been over a month since I first began this chapter. Thank you for your patience, but I do hope you appreciated the previous two posts related to race relations. Oh, and Happy New Year!
Chapter 6 (continued) – The Creation of the Self
Please imagine once again that child that you once were. Do you remember running through the woods or through the neighborhood without concern for how fast or how far, without concern for the smoothness or clumsiness of your gate? The universe said run, and so you did. The entirety of your being said run and so it did. There is simply no arguing with the universe or the entirety of your being – not when you’re a child, anyway. Do you remember drawing or finger-painting or coloring without the question ever entering your mind as to whether you were “any good at it” or not, without the question ever entering your mind as to whether it was a worthwhile pursuit or whether you should consider doing something else instead? You were alive and fully engaged with the world, without an inkling of ambivalence or self-judgment. Sure, we still enjoy such moments in our adulthood, albeit far more infrequently and under circumstances that are far more contrived – like when we’re engaged in our favorite hobby or pastime that allows us to “lose ourselves” from time to time. But what makes childhood such a wondrous time is precisely the fact that we don’t yet possess such a strong sense of self to be lost.
A prominent theme throughout these posts is that of the inevitable “fall from grace” that results from our developing self-awareness. This burgeoning self-awareness, however, can be thought of more precisely in terms of the development of two distinct but intertwining psychological realities – one a construct, the other a capacity. Namely, we are in the process of constructing our sense of self at the same time that we are developing the capacity for reflective awareness of that self. Each requires the other. So, what exactly is going on as day by day we grow older and proceed with the construction of this thing that many of us end up thinking is even more real than the universe that gives rise to it?
Recall the oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that I spoke of back in a previous post – that state in which the infant does not yet perceive any separation between self and other. From there the infant begins to explore his or her environment and map out the physical boundaries between what is “inside”, those internal bodily sensations and tactile sensations of pleasure and pain, and what is “outside”, that which can be touched but which does not feel that touch as the toes do when the hand reaches up and grabs them. A rudimentary conception of self and other begins to form.
With the development of language skills this mapping of self and other becomes more refined. The world ceases to exist in undifferentiated oneness and becomes recognized instead as a collection of things, each with its own name and set of attributes. The sky is blue. The grass is green. Fish swim and birds fly. The child, too, has a name, and she has attributes as well. Do you remember how young Amy described herself back in We Have A Place? “My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. My Daddy takes us to the park and we run and play catch. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I like to draw and read books.”
Of course, children don’t just spontaneously take to cataloguing their attributes. Without a doubt, Amy’s description would have taken some coaxing for her to create, and further coaxing for her to relate. In that regard we all play a role in the construction of the child’s sense of self. We are both their mentors and their mirrors. Ah, but you might wonder what harm there is in that. Nobody’s putting any words in Amy’s mouth and telling her what she should be or how she should be. Her description simply arises from the reality of her young life. Fair enough. Sooner or later, though, Amy will be introduced to the concept of being “good” at something, and being “bad” at something else. She’ll begin to evaluate how well she reads and how well she draws and how well she does a whole host of other things (or she will begin to internalize the evaluations of others), and no doubt these evaluations will begin to be included in her sense of self.
Please don’t misunderstand me. My work as a counselor has given me a deep appreciation of the value of our being able to determine what we’re “good” at and what we enjoy, and being able to then nurture that self-understanding into a career that is meaningful and rewarding for both us and our community. My work as a human being, however, has given me a deep appreciation for just how difficult this process can be. One rather obvious difficulty arises when what we’re good at and what we enjoy end up being two very different things. Or when what we’re both good at and enjoy simply does not have any appreciable economic value. How then shall we choose our life’s work? What criteria shall we use? Less obvious, though no less difficult, is when we confuse our being skilled at something with our enjoyment of it. Perhaps we’ve come to mistake our enjoyment of the extrinsic reward that we earn for being good at something with our intrinsic enjoyment of it.
A few years ago a very famous and talented tennis champion wrote in his memoir that he actually hated the game, that his father had forced him to play, and that it was a very lonely pursuit. Now, consider for a moment your reaction to such a revelation. Can you allow yourself to grieve at least in some small measure for that child who was denied the opportunity to simply be himself and to discover his own path? Or are you inclined to sidestep such psychic turmoil with a ‘yeah, but now he’s young and rich and happily married to a beautiful tennis champion’ sort of shrug? Yes, life is complicated like that – with joy and sorrow all tangled up together in the package that is us. I can imagine that every one of us has a bittersweet tale to tell of how we came to be what we are in this present day.
I was in middle school by the time U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began winding down. An older student conveyed the news to me as we waited to board the school bus that would take us home. And as the bus bounced and swayed and deposited us in groups of two and three throughout our respective neighborhoods, the reality of that news gradually settled into me: The nightmare that I’d lived with for so many years – that of being plucked from home against my will and dropped into the middle of a jungle firefight – would not come to pass after all. I was free to dream of a future once again. But the capacity for dreaming is not something that can be turned off and on again at will. It atrophies as muscles do if not used for far too long. And so my high school years came and went without any dream of a future being able to take root within me, without much sense of meaning becoming apparent amongst the myriad pieces of a world that seemed shattered from the farthest reaches outside of me to the deepest places inside of me.
Thankfully, I had my poetry. Where no other meaning existed there remained that which is inherent in being aware and giving voice to that awareness. Unfortunately, with the exception of possibly saving my life, poetry was not a very practical skill to take out into a world mired in an economic recession that would not be “surpassed” until the Great Recession of 2008. By the time I finally entered college after a couple of years of hoping that some signpost might appear out there in the fog, there was little for me to do but begin taking coursework in the only subject matter from high school that I recalled being “good” at – mathematics. No, it was not what I truly loved, but in a fashion vaguely resembling the aforementioned reluctant tennis champion, I parlayed it into a level of financial stability for which I am grateful, and which allows me now to pursue that which is more meaningful to me.
Perhaps there is some strange irony in my now providing counsel to those who are in a place not all that different from the one in which I found myself so many years ago. Is it really such a stretch to see the similarity of where I was and where my young urban clients are – growing up in neighborhoods too dangerous or too impoverished for any dreams to take root, finding meaning in little other than the “rhymes” that they compose? And what about you? Do you dare trace the twists and turns that your own life has taken? Or will the illusion of the inevitability of the “you” that you’ve become come crashing down around you? For the longer that the universe allows us to bask in the apparent stability of our created selfhood, the more attached we become to all of the ideas and concepts and material trappings that we’ve used to construct it. Do you dare contemplate the “you” beneath the outer façade of you? Do you dare consider the possibility that the mortar holding together all of the bricks and stones of “you” is the very fear of nonexistence?
Woodcut version of Munch’s The Scream via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank