Whose Psyche Is It, Anyway?

1a233f4When we discuss our psychological state, what are we talking about. Better yet, who are we talking about? What is the identity of the guy in my head?

Generally, such questions are not asked. They can become important in certain dissociative disorders. If I have two guys in my head, there is clearly an issue. Is what I identify as my self – the sum of my life experiences, memories, decisions, opinions, feelings, habits – is this what will survive the death of my body? Will Nancy and Jim’s second child, the neurotic, anxiety-prone, attention deficient boy, wander the halls of heaven worrying about what’s expected of him next? Will he enter paradise with a running dialog in his head – not actually in paradise but just talking to himself about what he supposes to be paradise?

Just whose psyche is it?

This is an apt question – particularly when you consider that the word psyche in Greek means “soul.” A psychiatrist means, interestingly, a “doctor of the soul.”

From a spiritual perspective, much of what we experience on a moment-to-moment basis, is pathological. That is to say, it is a product of spiritual sickness. The root of this sickness, in Greek, is philautia, “love of self.” In more common parlance, we could say that we are ego-driven.

We create a false-self through our collection of experiences, memories, decisions, opinions, feelings, habits – a false-self that is anxious about its existence, and that is constantly re-inventing and revising its story.

“I’m not sure I ever loved her,” a troubled husband says. This is the same man who once thought he couldn’t live without her. But as our lives change, our memories and experiences, opinions, etc., are revised. They are always extremely selective. The active life-memory that we engage on a regular basis is but a tiny fraction.

“I remember my fourth grade year,” we say. But we don’t remember any “year.” We remember a few select faces and events that we deem “fourth grade year,” much like a set of yearbook photos. We may have a few select experiences or dominant feelings. These are often memories that have not been successfully integrated into a general sense of well-being. They linger because they still hurt.

Indeed, the entire question of identity is problematic. Oddly, in the modern world we often don’t identify with our bodies. “That’s not him,” you hear at a funeral as people comfort themselves with Manichaean sentiments. And yet the body, with its DNA, is the one most consistent (and persistent) component of our existence.

So who is it that Jesus saved and why is it so important?

“He calls us each by name,” is a comforting quote in the modern world. It is extremely important where the life of the individual is both exalted above everything and crushed beneath the weight of mass consumerism. We shop for our identities, only to have bought what everyone else has. “Jesus called me by my name.”

The highest example of human existence offered in Christianity is described in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He emptied Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name (Phi 2:5-9).

This act of self-emptying is known as kenosis. It is the ultimate act of love, the ultimate act of self-giving, self-forgetting. And it is the act that St. Paul here directly connects with Christ’s exalted Name. For St. John, this is the moment of Christ’s glorification. It is an act not just of the sacrificing God/Man, but the very act which He enjoins on every one of His followers – it is the ultimate act of true human existence:

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luk 17:33)

And it is interesting that the word translated “life” in this passage, is the word: psyche, soul. Whatever it is that is so precious about our identity is the stuff of self-offering. The ego cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Our identity is something other than what we commonly think about:

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2)


 To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.”‘ (Rev 2:17)

This “identity” is not unconnected with what we now think of as our self. But it is the self resurrected, transformed. That “self” is constantly being born through the work of Christ within us. It is not the improvement of our present self, a “moral project.” For the process is not one of improvement but of life from the dead. The old dies and the new is reborn. So that the Christian life is not one of learning how to “behave” ourselves as Christians. The Christian life is the learning of how to put the “old self to death.”

Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)


For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom 8:13)

What we “put to death”  within our lives is much that we daily experience as the “ego.” Thus, our fears, the habits that are the passions, our preciously defended opinions, so much that is formed by sinful experiences within our lives are transformed in the work of purification. We are not yet “what” we shall be – and the “what” of what we are now is often confused with the “who” of who we are now. Who would I be without the fear? Who would I be without the envy, anger and jealousy?

There is a self at our very core and heart. It is the psychosomatic unity of our person. Our experience of the true self is deeply clouded by the sin that infects our existence. It is the true self that is “being saved.” However, much that we treasure and hold dear is indeed passing away. The asceticism of the Church teaches us to let go of that which is passing away and to hold dear that which is being renewed. In addition, with patient endurance and watchfulness, we learn to tell them apart.

The wholeness and the peace that is encountered in the presence of truly sanctified persons (such as the spirit-bearing elders) is an encounter with a true self. There is a fullness there that can almost be overwhelming. It is this same fullness that is described by Motivilov in the famous encounter with St. Seraphim in the snowy Russian winter

It is the same for us when we discern the true presence of Christ within ourselves. The passions are diminished; fears disappear; the traumas of life resolve and we forgive everyone for everything. It is in such moments that we see paradise and gain courage to renew our struggle.

Whose psyche is it? Whose soul is it? It is myself, but myself renewed according to the image in which it was created. Christ within me, the hope of glory.