Exploring selfhood takes courage, patience, endurance

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman wrote a fantasy fiction series called “The Prophet of Akhran.” I’ve never read these books, let alone heard of the authors or the series until just now. So it pays, then, to have friends who read and who are then kind enough to slip you terrific quotes via email.

Quotes such as this: “The fight for self-understanding is like fighting an enemy who never stands in front of you but always attacks from the rear, who is never seen clearly, who continually jabs away at every weakness. Only the most fortunate get the best of him.”

Self-understanding. To know oneself. The journey of selfhood. It’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s like having one of those strange flecks floating across your eyeball. You can see it. Maybe even feel it. You know it’s there. But, whenever you try to look at it, it moves. It floats away.

Healthy, growing people cultivate An Observer. They can look at themselves. More importantly, they are willing to look at themselves. The Observer steps back to make simple, straightforward observations about emotions, motives and behavior. It interrupts our normal day-to-day movements through life and says things such as “You’re really anxious” … “Interesting — you’re married, but you just responded amenably to your co-worker’s flirtatious text” … “Have you ever really looked inside a Jack in the Box taco?” … “You wish that person ill” … “You’re scared/angry/in love” … “You’re lying” … etc.

Now, on the one hand, it’s important to cultivate An Observer. I like it so much better than cultivating Blithe Oblivion. I’m always struck by folks who apparently don’t have a mechanism to notice people noticing them. Folks who make me want to say, “Do you ever hear yourself talk?”

Yet, on the other hand, no matter how rigorously, regularly and faithfully we observe ourselves, there will always remain a part of ourselves that eludes the observing — namely, the part doing the observing! It is here that self-understanding cannot go forward without trusted others and their observations. Dear friends can observe our Observer and say things like “I observe that you are nearly paralyzed with this ‘observing self’ crap. Lighten up.” Or, “I observe that your Observer is prejudicially mean and nasty to you. Until such time as you find a gentler, kinder Observer, I’m going to notice some really wonderful qualities about you.”

I’m saying, it’s not that easy to observe ourselves.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) spoke to us of The Shadow, that part of the human unconscious into which the ego bullies disagreeable parts of self. Observe yourself all you like, but the content of your Shadow will elude you precisely because it’s unconscious. The Shadow’s contents must be coaxed out into the light, mostly by inferring backward from puzzling behaviors, unbidden thoughts, unwelcome verbal outbursts and disturbing dreams.

In Western civilization, The Shadow chiefly contains sex, aggression and violence. If it’s disagreeable to the ego’s preferred image of self, it gets tossed into the unconscious. And it doesn’t even have to be an unlovely reality. A friend once said to me, “You have Christ in your Shadow,” meaning that I was embarrassed, self-conscious and afraid of my own inherent capacity for true goodness.

Weis and Hickman say that self-understanding “continually jabs away at every weakness.” My weaknesses are the growing edge of selfhood. The trick is to welcome awareness of weakness as invitation, adventure and friend, instead of a self-decreed persona non grata (a person without grace).

The authors say that “only the most fortunate get the best” of this “enemy.” And here I disagree. It’s not so much fortune that makes progress in self-understanding. Rather, it’s endurance. Near foolish persistence. It’s a relentless hunger to mine the full riches of selfhood, no matter how dark it is down there. No matter how many times the tunnels collapse.

Still, there are days when I am a stranger to myself. Mystified and discouraged. That’s when I change the question from “Who am I?” to “Whose am I?” I am a father. I am a mate. I am a friend. A citizen. A neighbor. I belong to the people in the equations of those relationships.

No matter what I understand or don’t understand about me, I can always love, honor, respect, cherish, be generous and attentive to people who need me.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.

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