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  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

Self-identity: A talk given by Brian Mountford

Introduction – two versions of me

1. Self in the mirror: your image, how you see yourself, the clothes you choose etc.

Why is to be the most common verb? Because am-ness, being, is the fundamental, underlying experience and what brings intelligibility to life. So many of the above roles define what we are and how we see ourselves.

At the other end of the scale is the experience of coming to self-consciousness, what is your first memory? When was the moment you suddenly became aware that you were an actor on this stage? When did you become self-aware? For me it was somewhere before I was three when I picked up a hot poker by the coal fire and had to spend the next hour with my mother holding my hand in a bowl of cold tea, which was her homespun cure.

So who am I? I’m a male, I’m a female. I’m black, I’m white, I’m a teacher, a postman, retired, unemployed, on benefits. I’m a single mother, I’m a father. I’m a refugee, a native. I’m old, I’m young. I’m an extrovert, an introvert, French, Chinese. I’m clever, I don’t feel very bright. I’m middle class, working class, have a degree, left school at sixteen. I’m gay, I’m straight. I’m catholic, protestant, a house owner, I’ll never get on the housing ladder. I’m a soldier, a pacifist, Labour, Conservative, pro-Europe, pro Brexit.

As Alice in Wonderland mused when she had grown out of touch with her feet, ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!'

2. The essential I. Me? Am I not something more than the cells in my body? An entity with meaning beyond the life of my cells?

The real me. The real you. I wouldn’t want them to see the real me.

Discuss in relation to soul/body duality in religion.


What does Christian theology say about the self? Well, first it says in Genesis that God made us in his own image – expand. If godlike, then special and uniquely superior beings; and in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ And in John’s Gospel it says that God ‘so loved the world that he gave his only son’ to save humankind. So God is very affirmative of humanity. Indeed, the German/American theologian, Paul Tillich spelled it out in one of his most famous sermons. ‘Sometimes,’ he said…‘a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now…Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’

God loves you – but there’s no cup of tea. I.e. it’s not always psychologically satisfactory simply to say God loves you because God doesn’t hug you and comfort you in a physical way – and that’s what you’re missing. So from the Christian point of view we must beware of being glib about the God solution to problems.

But, as you might have guessed, there’s a paradox coming. At another point Jesus says that anyone who wishes to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. And this is one of the Biblical bits Lent is latching on to. And then the church takes up the theme with monasticism – poverty, chastity and obedience – deny yourself, wear the hair shirt, beat yourself with the ferula if you want spiritual enlightenment.

At a more sophisticated level this approach aims to get into the heart of Christian ethics: suppress the ego, try not to obsess about yourself and then you might find that self-giving love, that agape, which is the defining characteristic of Jesus and the quality so brilliantly exemplified in his Passion.

The French philosopher, Simone Weil, was fascinated by techniques for suppressing the ego and found that when she was working on mathematical problems she kind of lost herself and was somehow purged of selfishness. And she suggested that others might find a similar experience in practical things like woodwork, walking, macramé?

Psychology –the conflicted self

Amia Srinivasan’s point about conflicted self as an aspect of a wider observation that in many situations we experience tension between being a stranger or accepted, in or out, between reliance on another and assertion of independence. ‘There is a philosophical tradition, starting with Hegel, and elaborated most fully in certain versions of psychoanalysis, that sees this paradoxical need for communion and separation as central to the drama of human consciousness. Each of us starts life lost in an other; or rather, at the beginning of life there is no other, and no self, just the undifferentiated union of parent and child. The self is born through a traumatic act of separation, by coming to see itself as distinct from someone else. And yet that separation is never truly complete.

For the self depends on the other in order to be itself. This is a desperate, unbearable situation. It is why we all, at some level, have the urge to destroy those we love, to assimilate the beloved into ourselves, to annihilate him or her completely.’

This I take as a reference to Melanie Klein’s work on the child’s conflicting relationship with its mother as it experiences a regular pattern of what seems like acceptance and rejection in the process of breast feeding. (The breast is given and taken away and the infant’s experience is one of generosity followed by loss or deprivation). By the age of four years the child can begin to come to terms with this. But to be able to feel ambivalent about someone is, for Kleinians, an enormous psychological achievement and the first marker on the path to genuine maturity.

Amia says we need to finds a way through the paradox, a way of being at once familiar and strange, in communion but unassimilated. And wonders whether God contains the same tension and whether this is resolved by the incarnation. ‘Perhaps in Christ God’s ambivalence is finally contained and expressed; perhaps by being born a man, God not only answers humanity’s longing, but also His own.’ What could this mean? It seems at one level a metaphysical fancy, but another a description of

a truth that may run through all creation: tension, paradox, conflicted forces, motivations etc.

Self-worth versus self-loathing

This psychology of conflicted self puts me in mind of another set of opposites: self-worth and self-loathing, which is big in our culture. Since 1980’s there’s been a kind of sentimental drive towards self-worth: L’Oréal – I pamper myself ‘because I’m worth it’ – and that is taken as a self-authenticating good. Yes, go for it, you deserve it. Be yourself. This is the cult of individuality, of individual rights. But you can never quite believe it.

Alternatively you might feel No one loves me. I am unlovable. It might be paranoia, but it might be failure to meet the ephemeral pressures of a society such as promoted in advertising, magazines, and TV: body shape, money, an ideal of relationship. There are pathologies of self-loathing that lead to self-harm, resort to drugs and alcohol. Depression. Because I don’t feel worth it and because I am repulsive to others – or so I feel. Rejected.

When we ask that fundamental existential question about the meaning of life and the point of our existence, it’s often because we’re facing the stark reality of isolation and despair: illness, bereavement, breakdown of a relationship, financial crisis, imprisonment, self-loathing for one reason or another.

Angst, Dread and Existentialism

Fear of meaninglessness in vast and impersonal universe. Fear that sense of self is a mere trick of the conscious mind. Smallness and helplessness. These existential moments of crisis lead to more generalized feelings of dread, anxiety, or fear. The term angst was introduce by Soren Kierkegaard, and it’s usually translated as ‘dread’. He argues that we can only gain a secure sense of our identity by taking the leap of faith and entering into a relationship with God.

Sartre called this feeling of existential crisis nausea. And he used anguish to describe the sense of perplexity in the face choices and freewill, with no constraints on us but for those we choose to impose.

We can find our own illustrations of angst.

(Another modern experience in an overpopulated world: In vastly populated places like India, human life can be less valued (there are so many lives, to lose one would not be noticed.) Fatalism ensues: if your number’s up…the story of my coach journey from Delhi to Taj Mahal.)

Moral outcome of angst: If there is no purpose in the universe I might as well live for the moment. You only live once therefore squeeze everything you can out it. Life’s not a rehearsal etc. Similar to: if the Bible isn’t true then I might as well commit rape and take drugs and steal etc. My moral framework breaks down and I’ll do what I really want to do. But of course that misses the point of what actually is rewarding in life and on the whole that is to live the good life in Aristotelian terms: books, concerts and bicycles.

Tragedy, Being, Memory and Mind

So tragedy provides the most searching test of self; as in the stories of the Holocaust, the erosion of self in concentration camps – prisoners arrive clutching their luggage and have it wrenched from them. ‘You won’t be needing that where you’re going’. There’s a sudden realisation that you won’t need your precious things, even your clothes, because you are going to die and your life is worth nothing. On a lesser scale many Syrian refugees must feel that as they board the overladen boats to Lesbos. Primo Levi’s book If this is a man asks the question to what degree the vile treatment of Jews in Auschwitz excised a person’s self. As Howard Jacobson put it in a Guardian article a couple of years ago, ‘Things happen in If This is a Man that are beyond ordinary daily experience, but it is still us to whom they are happening, and the understanding Levi seeks is no different in kind from that sought by Shakespeare in King Lear, or Conrad in The Heart of Darkness.’

In other words, even in such extremes, redemption (and therefore hope) is possible. It might not be happening to us, but it is happening to humanity, and therefore we must share that burden.

So this is what I think Christianity might be bringing to the discussion of personal meaning and self-identity. God is the foundation of being, maybe being itself. When Moses meets God in the burning bush he asks what he’s going to tell the Israelites about the experience. God says to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’’ So God is the verb to be.

We describe our existence in terms of relationship and memory. This week my 16 month old grandchild has been staying. She hasn’t yet reached the point of self-identity, but it’s fascinating to watch her unrelenting curiosity about her environment, opening cupboards, trying to learn names for chair, bowl, piano (which she thumps) and so on. She’s building up her meaning-of-life memory bank which will eventually enable her to branch out on her own and not to be dependent on parents and others for survival.

We all exist in relationship. And to be out of relationship, as in the case of an old and isolated person who doesn’t see another soul for three or four days at a time, is recognised as a totally debilitating social problem. We are happiest when we are in good relationships. If you suffer badly from Alzheimer’s and don’t remember anything or know who anyone is, there’s a philosophical question of whether you have personhood or not. A hard view would be that without a memory bank of reference points we lose our selfhood, a softer view would be that it isn’t only memory, relationship and recall that makes a person. What about the child in the womb, the person in a coma, the fact that with a bad Alzheimer’s case, the attempt to renew relationship is made every time a carer speaks tenderly.

Joke: The Archbishop of York and a priest in his diocese go to visit an old lady in a residential home. The Archbishop is demonstrating that he can still do his pastoral bit. The lady seems not to be with it. The Archbishop asks her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ and she replies, ‘No, but if you ask matron she’ll be able to tell you.’

Philosophers of religion might think of God as the ground of being, but also as Mind, with a capital letter. We have value because we are known by God and meaning because we are remembered by God.

So we are valued by God and thus given a particular selfhood, but we are also challenged not to indulge selfhood in selfishness. And in the Lenten exercise of self-examination we are especially exhorted to recognise and honour the selfhood of others.

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