Not a Dead Self, But a Grounded Self

There is a long stream of Christian thought in the English language that names ego, “self”, or even “Self” as what is wrong inside of us. I believe that this is at the same time tragically near to and far from the truth. Is it that one poor choice of words has had such devastating consequences for multitudes of Christians (and people who have to live with Christians), or have there been far deeper mistakes made along the way by people assuming that their interpretive scheme for the Pauline epistles somehow constitutes sound human psychology?

The problem, of course, with naming the evil principle “self” is that self is a noun essentially bound up with the reflexive pronoun. There is not much difference between “my self” and “myself”. If self is evil, then I am evil. Naming it “ego” says the same thing even more directly: “ego” is just the Latin and Greek pronoun “I”.

The Lutheran Kierkegaard, for all his Reformation influences, was too good of a philosopher and observer of his own psychology to make this mistake. In his penetrating analysis of the human condition, The Sickness Unto Death, he names the problem, not as “self”, but as the disease of self, which he terms “despair”. Likewise, he identifies the solution, not as freedom from self, but as freedom from despair, which he defines in a transcendently beautiful formula: “In relating to itself, and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.”

That one sentence of Kierkegaard’s so completely captivated my being from the moment I read it that sometimes I feel that everything I will ever write in the wake of reading it will simply be my own poor marginal notes on it. It is for me the epiphany of epiphanies. Of course! I can only be whole when I want to be myself. Of course! What I need is not a religiously obliterated self, but a transparently grounded self.

It is a small shift, isn’t it, to specify the problem more accurately as the disease of self, and not as the self itself? Yet it has had enormous ramifications for my own wellbeing, and I believe it could similarly help many other people who are trying to recover from an inhuman (or anti-human) Christianity.

It is an impossible endeavor to obliterate self, and it is essentially suicidal to try. It is equally unreal to try to exchange my self for someone else’s self, be that someone Jesus as he may.

In my unresearched understanding, I see the language of “death to self” as an attempt to interpret and de-concretize the original Pauline language of “crucifying the flesh”. Many Christians, of course, still use the original language, and many of them use “the flesh” synonomously with ego, or selfishness. In its literal sense, of course, this language suggests that it is our bodies that are the problem, and this anti-human understanding has had a twisted flourishing throughout Christian history.

And yet, all this bad language remains close to the psychological reality of our human experience. It is our self-knowledge, our self-awareness that torments us day and night. It is our insatiable need to have ourselves recognized that drives us to destroy our own lives and the lives of everyone around us. Or is it?

I am not a psychologist, or even a student of psychology. I’m only trying to give meaning to my own experience. But what I’m coming to understand for myself is that we have an existential need to experience ourselves as good. Healthy self-knowledge is a tree of life. It is a fruit so potent that we cannot live without it. We need to know, and know deeply and truly, that who we are is good and glorious.

The problem with this need is that this fruit is not a gift we can give ourselves. Our knowledge of ourselves is necessarily uncertain and incomplete, and becomes only more uncertain the more introspective we become. Just as the philosopher who tries to plumb the depths of existence can end by becoming uncertain that anything exists, in our self-examination we become increasingly unable to discern between our fantasy selves and our real self, between the person we want to be and the person we actually are in practice.

It seems that as human persons we are wired to receive knowledge of ourselves (our selves) through significant Others. We see ourselves in their eyes. As by reflection, they radiate the knowledge of our true selves into us. What we crave is the confirmation of our essential goodness by those whose from whom we most need it, the people closest to us. Or at least, I think that is the way it is meant to be. In practice, few of us have actually received this nurture to the degree that we needed it, and we perpetuate this poverty on the people who in their turn seek it from us.

That is, of course, where our existential need becomes an existential dilemma. What do we do when our beings are not at rest in this deep confirmation? At that point, the disease of self, despair, has invaded us. Our self-knowledge has become self-torment. I have found no more insightful analysis of the progress of that disease than in The Sickness Unto Death. The rest of these thoughts, however, must wait for another time.

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