Self vs. Self: Meanings of the Split
How we transcend self-loathing by treating it as a test
Where do we locate the line that, according to Solzhenitsyn, passes through every human heart? How should we classify the orders of reality represented by the “good” and “evil” that the line separates?
A student raises his hand, eager to report that he knows the answer. “These are just metaphors,” the student explains. “The physical heart resembles the metaphorical heart in some ways, but it doesn’t occupy the same system of coordinates. Similarly, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are notoriously problematic category labels,” the goody-two-shoes concludes.
Even more than the meaning of “good,” “evil” or “heart,” the meaning of “self” is inscrutable. The metaphorical scrutiny begins where the physical scrutiny exhausts its potential. Ultimately, they both fail, leaving us with the sense that we are lived, in W.H. Auden’s words, by powers we pretend to understand.
The pretense that we understand these powers is essential to our sanity. It spares us the pain of saying “I don’t know.” Through experience, we know that the acknowledgment of our ignorance can set off waves of anxiety that flood our physical and metaphorical space. We know that we don’t know, and this open secret causes us to find comfort behind the mask of our identity.
This way, we develop what Carl Jung called “Persona,” the mask we begin to wear soon after birth. Most of us live and die without noticing the ways in which this mask obstructs our breath. Some of us, including Oscar Wilde, awaken to the falsehood of our Persona, and we reach for another mask through which, according to Wilde, we can speak our “truth.”
The truth we thus speak is a falsehood, for all spoken truths are falsehoods, but it is a comprehensible falsehood. It is defensible inside a tabernacle of assumptions. Our masks redeem our stories from incomprehensibility.
So, we see our masks as good, and the reality behind our masks, we see as a threat to our sanity. We can’t excise the “self” from the vortex of incomprehensibility with the tools of language, so we regard the self the way we regard everything that exposes our ignorance: with fear and loathing. A better term for the experience is psychophobia — fear of self.
In the furnace of psychophobia, we either break down or break through, or we wallow.
We break down when we accept self-loathing as the final conclusion.
We break through when we treat self-loathing messages as a test. When we discover a meaning-making absence struggling with its name, we pass the test.
We wallow when we vacillate between breakthroughs and breakdowns.
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