The True Self and the Story of Me

At some point early in life, we begin to construct a narrative. Composed of memory and emotion, complete with  critical commentary, this narrative becomes what we consider to be the self. This narrative may be revised and reinterpreted any number of times across a lifetime. The great tragedy, from a Christian point-of-view, is that this carefully constructed and defended story is not the true self. At best, it could be termed the ego, but even that grants it a privilege to which it is not entitled. The true self is quite distinct. Distinguishing between the two is one of the most essential tasks of the spiritual life. It is also a task almost completely lost within modern Christian awareness.

Within certain strands of Orthodox Christian writing, the true self is seen as centered in the heart. Though the heart carries a variety of meanings (some contradictory) in both Scripture and spiritual writings – it is used in this article as shorthand for that place within us that it the true seat of the self – that place where we meet God and where we encounter paradise. This will be more clear as I write.

Fr. Meletios Webber, using this same understanding of the heart, states:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. (From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).

This seat of the self is not a narrative construct. Being entirely in the present, it is decidedly not a construct of anything. It is not our self-image. It is not our projection of desires or fears. It is not in danger or need such that it needs defending. It is the true givenness of our existence (given by God) and is therefore not in need of our self-definition. It is not the product of our intelligence or our choice. It is not generated by our nationality, genetics or social position. In short, it is not any of the things that we use to construct the illusion of the ego.

Modern man looks with terror at the threat of the diseases of the mind (particularly dementia). It is certainly a great tragedy (my mother was suffering from dementia at the time of her death). But the threat it presents to us is the loss of the many things from which we construct the ego. We too easily jump to the conclusion that the “self” has been lost. There is indeed a great loss, but the self remains. Dignity and worth remain (when properly understood). By the same token, a person in a “persistent vegetative state” remains a person and the self, the heart, is intact. A great measure of our terror lies in the fact that we cannot imagine an existence that is not identical with the narrative construct of the mind.

One aspect of our fallen existence is that the mind (thoughts and emotions) has come to dominate the heart. Indeed, it dominates the heart to such an extent that most people have little to no awareness of the heart. In popular parlance, “heart” means “emotions.” Thoughts and emotions are not evil nor are they somehow opposed to the heart. However, we are disordered. The heart is the true seat of the self and is meant to be that place out of which we live. Thoughts and emotions are meant to serve the heart and are not meant to create a false self.

Were our thoughts and emotions simply “information” the problem they create would likely not exist. But there are often very dark sources for our thoughts and emotions. The memories that shape our narrative are also the stuff that creates our wounds. In deep places, even very secret places, the need for the “ego” to protect itself can be overwhelming. Much of the material that makes up the actions we confess as “sin” comes precisely from these dark wounds.

Perhaps the most common such place of darkness can be described under the heading of shame. In modern therapeutic language, shame is the sense we have of ourselves as damaged and worthless. Guilt is the term used to describe how we feel about something we’ve done wrong. Shame is the sense we have that we ourselves are wrong. In many people, this deep sense of self-loathing is extremely toxic. I offer a sample description by a contemporary therapist about shame-generated thoughts:

[One] result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private, secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense, which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks–like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable–that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything. Additionally, people who are always criticizing others are usually trying to give the shame away—-the critic defends herself against the bad feelings by believing herself to be better than others. The critic may need to feel superior to avoid being submerged in feelings of inferiority. Rage disguises shame too. One way to fight against humiliation is to attack the perceived attacker. Shame and rage in combination can often result in verbal or physical abuse.

Compare this to Fr. Meletios’ description of the actions of the mind:

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task…. Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right.

Our shame-based perception of the world is a deep distortion. The information we think to be true and the judgments we make miss the mark. Our problem is often more than the failure of the mind to be grounded in the heart. The mind (thoughts and emotions) is simply insane (insanis).

The fathers are quite clear about all of this. Before we begin the grace-filled work of illumination (knowing God and being conformed to His image), there is the work of purification. Most people engage the work of purification as though it were a stationary bicycle. We battle one disordered thought with another disordered thought, even turning on ourselves with more loathing. We not only judge others – we condemn ourselves for the act of judging. We echo St. Paul’s cry for help, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

The way forward begins with the recognition of our true predicament. The mind will not be taught to behave. The toxic sources within our inner selves need to be addressed. Confession – and even therapy in competent hands, are important. Spiritual direction with someone who understands the place of the heart and the means by which an individual finds it is essential. Refusing to accept the conclusions of our inner narrative and the ego that it generates is fundamental to Christian repentance. Concerning the mind (and thus the false self), St. Paul tells us:

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast….

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. (Col. 1:21-23 and 3:1-4).