Thursday, February 4, 2010

Looking for the Self in All the Wrong Places

A few years ago, a major American magazine dubbed a particular age-group as the “me generation.” It would have been more accurate to describe the whole of modernity as a “me generation.” For it has been a hallmark of our age to fashion a particular understanding of what we mean when we say “me.” It would come as a shock to many, but human beings have not always defined the self in the manner of modern man. Modern man is just that: modern.

Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity is probably the single most complete study of the topic. Not only how we perceive ourselves but what part of our experience we consider important and defining are significant elements of this identity. Orthodox theology has often offered criticism of modernity’s over-emphasis on the self-as-individual, preferring instead to emphasize our identity as found within the communion of persons (the Church).

Foundational questions for the self can be found in statements such as this of St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet, not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

What does St. Paul mean by the word, “I,” in this statement? It is clear that the identity shifts over the course of the two sentences. “I live, yet not I.”

The same thought resides in Christ’s commandment, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

The question “Who are you?” or even “What are you?” is not quite as obvious as it would seem. The fathers of the Church who write on prayer and the inner life, speak about the problem of the logismoi, the little thoughts that sound constantly in our minds. The modern ego is described by Archimandrite Meletios Webber as a sort of false construct, a narrative of the logismoi which we often struggle to maintain and defend, projecting it backwards and forwards through time. The identity that exists only in the present remains virtually unknown to most.

It is understood as well that the identity that is so fiercely defended in our acts of pride and the like is not the self at all. In Christian teaching the true self is only found in “emptying ourselves” in the likeness of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). We create a false self not only in defending our false positions, but also in creating a life of opinion and judging where thoughts and feelings, particularly those that give us a sense of belonging to a particular group, become of paramount importance. Thus to say, “I am an Orthodox Christian,” can, in some cases, mean little more than “I am a fan of such-and-such a football team.” Our identity becomes marked by arguments and positions – but not marked by prayer and communion with God. Holding Orthodox opinions is not the same thing as the life of the Orthodox faith.

But this only becomes clear as we are freed from false identifications of the self. The modern world tends to smash communal identities: the culture views us and wants us to view ourselves purely as individuals. All identity of the self beyond personal desire and opinion are seen merely as the choices and proclivities of individuals. Communal identity becomes a function of individual loyalties. It is this that reduces religious identity to the level of a sports fan.

St. Paul points the way forward towards our true self:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

“Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” gives the identity of the true self. Interestingly, this true self is spoken of as “hidden,” thus indicating that even our own identity is “apophatic” in character: our true self is not obvious but is instead a mystery in Christ. The ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting also direct us to struggle against the logismoi, the constant flow of thoughts that are not our true self.

I was interested last week to hear Archimandrite Meletios speak of the logismoi and particularly identify them with that flow of thoughts that arise as we lie in bed nearing the waking state. He stated that he asks his monks to stop and think of 5 things for which they are grateful before getting out of bed. “I would prefer not to encounter anyone in the morning who has just arisen from the logismoi,” he said with some humor. I could well imagine that it is a matter of survival within a monastery.

Much of our anxiety and regret (maybe all of it) are the sounds of this voice of the false self. Hidden with Christ in God, the true self sings praises and rejoices in all things. The true self does not dwell in the past or worry about the future: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

A friend recently sent me a link to a letter written by a contemporary monk who is slowly passing into deeper stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. The words of the monk are an amazing testimony of faith, but also a reminder that much that is considered the “self” in our modern world is not the true self. There is a self that transcends even the ravages that assault our brain. I found this to be deeply comforting. The letter may be read here. (

May God keep us all.

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