The Discovery of Self

Last week, we spoke of our need to belong, and that it is a need to belong in our very uniqueness, not merely our of conformity or in terms of projecting an image that we feel is acceptable. Yet the discovery of our authentic self is a slow and gradual process, and it can be both hindered and helped by one another.

It seems that we tend to inherit the image of ourselves and the script of our lives from those who play predominate roles in our early life. Sometimes, almost unintentionally, one child in the family is regarded as the star, so to speak, and the others grow up in his or her shadow. Sometimes, the problems, the wounds, and the addictions of a parent can lead the child to feel that he or she is unwanted or at least a nuisance. Yet there is in each person a protest against such labelling and a deep longing for a sense of worth by being valued.

There is also the cultural impact which seems to project a model of success in financial terms, and readily to divide society into a few winners and many losers. At the same time, when people are asked who has meant the most to them in their lives, their answer usually falls within the realm of kindness, caring, support, and the like. I once inquired of a class who they regarded as heroes or heroines. The most common answer was their grandmother. The common thread was this was someone who had struggled with and overcome adversity and who genuinely loved them.

It would seem that the path to discovery of our true or authentic self involves at once a gradual uncovering of who we are beneath the layers of labels that have been attached to us from outside, and the experience of caring relationships that at once provide a safe place for us and convince us that who we really are is worthwhile.

Philosopher John Smith writes that only gradually does a child learn to distinguish himself or herself from the persons and things around them and come to a sense of self. Yet this process will always involve some element of wounding that is only gradually and never completely overcome. Dag Hammarskjold has termed this discovery of our inmost self, the core of our being. Philosopher, John O’Donohue puts it: “May you realize that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.”

Spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, speaks of this journey as going from the true to the false self. It involves moving beyond staying on the superficial surface of life, seeing ourselves only in opposition to others, and blindly accepting the slogans, myths, prejudices and ideologies of society. This unexamined worldview leas=ds a person to see life chiefly through the eyes of desire, fear, and hostility.

For Merton, the journey to the true self follows the path of a contemplative solitude. This is not a matter of probing into ourselves with a kind of psychological pliars, but becoming still so that what is at the depths of ourselves may rise to the surface of our awareness. As an example, if we are at a waterfront and churn up the sand with a stick, everything becomes cloudy. If we and the water become perfectly still, there is a clarity that allows the depth to be seen. We can embark on this journey if we have the recognition or at least the firm hope in the underlying worth or sacred value of who we truly are beneath this clutter. I once tried to sum up Merton’s vison in these words: “I am a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe.”

Besides a temporary withdrawal into solitude, nourished by silence, reflective reading, a walk in a natural setting, or the like, another path to awareness of our sacred identity and self, is friendship or encounter. I very much like the wording offered by philosopher. Sam Keen. “When we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. … We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”

William Sadler also holds that “genuine conversation between friends is perhaps the highest form of interpersonal communication.” As friendship develops with sensitivity, openness, and trust, we learn to share our deepest experiences, convictions, questions, and concerns. In the process, we discover who we are as well, and deepen our sense of self-worth. Psychologist Erich Fromm also stresses that what is most important is not what is talked about, but where it is spoken from. What is crucial is that persons “communicate with each other from the center of their existence. … Even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves.”

May each of you, in the silence of your heart and in the closeness to another, discover the secret of who you truly are, in your sacred worth, and have a deep sense of your own belonging and purpose.

Norman King, July 18, 2022