We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, July 5, 2012

True Self & False

I heard a presentation recently that made much of the distinction between "true self" and "false self".  True self is what we as Christians should cultivate and pursue.  False self is the thing that trips us up and has to be overcome.  The speaker urged that false self should be treated with a degree of gentleness, but it remains a problem to be dealt with.  Christian spirituality, at its best, moves us away from false self and toward true self.  It turns out that the concept of true self and false self, according to Wikipedia (here) is a fairly recent idea, introduced by a psychoanalyst in 1960.

OK.  It's a paradigm.  It may have its uses, but there are also some weaknesses involved—things to think about, at least.  There seems to be quite a literature on true and false selves, so those who promote the paradigm may have thought through some of these issues, but they are worth putting "on the table" in and of themselves.

The true-false self paradigm creates a division within us that, first, provides us with the chance to claim that the "bad" things we do are not the true us.  They are not the real us.  It affords us the opportunity to not take ownership for a part of what we are, to deny that part of ourselves as being really us, and to avoid responsibility for what actually is a part of what we are.  Our failings are not a false self.  They are part of our true self, but the true self-false slef paradigm seems to deny that fact.  Second, the paradigm also denies the fact of grayness in our souls.  We aren't day and night "down in there" but twilight, a mixture of dawn and dusk, the good and bad tangled together inseparably.   Third, our mixed nature means that as a rule our strengths can also be our weaknesses.  Stubbornness can, for example, at one moment be a strength seeing us through a  troubling situation and helping us to stand firm in the face of injustice.  It can in other moments be a scary weakness, causing us to visit injustice on others and ourselves.

     Finally, and to me most worrisome, the paradigm of true-false self encourages us to treat a part of ourselves as "the other," which is one of the grave weaknesses of modern human nature.  In the dim past of our evolution, distinguishing "us" from "them"  was evidently a necessary trait valuable to our survival.  Now, it is a mixed bag, but always carries the threat of destruction.  Much of our politics this year is driven by the political Right's fear of the other, embodied in the President of the United States.  In the church, the failure to treat the other who does not think or believe as we do has become a dominant motif of 21st century American Christianity.  It seems unwise and even unhealthy to turn this same dualistic paradigm lose on our inner life, our self.