The Desire for an Idealized Self

Both the religiously inclined and secular types strive to acquire a splendid false self. Between the two groups, the terminology may differ, but the game remains the same.

C. S. Lewis

The case of C. S. Lewis reveals that the desire for a splendid false self leads to self-alienation. (Photo: public domain)

English author and academic C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) experienced a sudden religious conversion while still a young man. He went on to become one of the 20th century’s best-known religious writers at a time when faith – in Europe, at least – was decidedly on the wane. Whatever one might say about his beliefs, Lewis is a superb example of how a skilled writer can win a following and find substantial success by going against the dominant trend. Conservative writers take note.

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The Inner Nag vs. Inner Wisdom

In this post, I want to present another example of the associative workings of the unconscious mind. Years of strenuous psychotherapy and much “soul searching” have made me sensitive to the meaningful little clues and useful responses the unconscious scatters through our lives. We all have these experiences, but many of us, not understanding their potential value just shrug them off. I recorded this simple incident in one of my notebooks. To set the scene, I should mention that I was living the hermit’s life in a forest shack on the edge of the Canadian wilderness at the time.

Two Faced Man

The human mind has two aspects, one of which can be a nag and the other a source of great wisdom. (Image: Gutenberg)

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Simone de Beauvoir on Death

Like all those who place the ego’s false persona before all else, Simone De Beauvoir struggled mightily with the reality of death. She writes of “the scandal of finiteness,” referring to our inescapable mortality. When you insist on emphasizing your separateness and see yourself as merely an isolated conscious ego, it becomes inevitable that fear of the permanent extinction of consciousness — occasioned by physical death — will threaten your peace of mind. Death can become something of a preoccupation.

Sartre and de Beauvoir at Balzac Memorial

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre wanted more from life than it could give. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The real scandal here is de Beauvoir’s way of ignoring the bigger picture — the immortality of the human race, which transcends individual mortality. Unfortunately, for those locked into believing they are merely a self-made false persona, only the individual counts. They never look beyond the boundaries of self-absorption and never seem to learn that such selfishness comes at a terrible price. Placing too much emphasis on maintaining a false image is a massive source of anxiety. The chronic angst generated by the necessity of maintaining and defending an idealized false persona is confused with fear of death and labelled existential angst. However, it is the dread of humiliation and exposure as a fraud that really drives this kind of continuing anxiety. The more-immediate fear is the death of the false persona.

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Orwell’s Struggle with the False Self

When reading literary biographies, one is wise to examine the worldview of the biographer as well as that of the subject. In his superb George Orwell: A Life, biographer Bernard Crick says a lot of perceptive things about Orwell, and while doing so, inadvertently illuminates humankind’s chronic problems with the discrepancy between the false persona we create to impress the world and the authentic self that we truly are.

George Orwell sitting at a BBC microphone

George Orwell was driven hard by what one biographer has called his “Puritan daemon.” (Image: BBC)

English literary critic Cyril Connolly lays out the ground of the conflict. He saw George Orwell as standing for independence and offering intelligence as an alternative to character. This view draws a sharp distinction between authenticity (character) and the intellect (ego and its attendant false persona). The idea that one can dispense with character or submerge it beneath intelligence is dubious to say the least, but such thinking reveals the way ego prefers the false persona, identifies with it, and hopes to shield genuine behaviour from view. The intellectual often presents himself as a paragon of moral virtue.

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Sartre on Freedom

French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre saw freedom, not just as a state of being or of mind, but as something with a distinct psychological or philosophical purpose. In his existential classic, Being and Nothingness, he writes, “Freedom is the way human beings put their past out of play by secreting their own nothingness.”

Jean Paul Sartre

Sartre had an exaggerated need for freedom, which may have come from his experiences in Nazi-occupied France. (Photo: WPClipart)

Sartre proposed that “nothing” is both the ground of human existence and what makes human existence possible. Unfortunately, this strange reality also generates an anxiety so unbearable that we all yearn to fill the nothing with something. From the psychological perspective, arbitrarily filling the nothing with something is an attempt to falsify ourselves and become what we are not. The something with which we choose (using our freedom) to replace the nothing is the foundation of our personal inauthenticity. In other words, there is nothing within us so we must “fill the vacuum,” so to speak, with an artificially constructed sense of self. Sartre’s motive for taking this unusual line is his desire to eliminate the old notion of dualism and replace it with a new monistic vision. To eliminate the perceived inside versus outside duality of the human being, he had to propose a situation where there was but one thing.

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The Constant Self Is Real

When feelings such as loneliness, loss, and placelessness assail them, people often get into serious emotional trouble. It is interesting to note that, when some people experience such feelings, they do not turn inward for an explanation of their own emotions. They do not even turn to psychology or philosophy, external knowledge bases which would give them some inkling of what is happening to them and are therefore relevant to their condition. Instead, they turn to spiritual belief systems. With Christianity, the West’s traditional religion, now fallen from favour, troubled individuals feel they must look elsewhere for spiritual comfort and understanding. With increasing regularity, they turn to godless belief systems such as Buddhism and Taoism. The absence of any moralizing god and the possibility of solitary spiritual practice are powerful attractions. That is, people prefer a godless belief system with no churches or temples and no organized religious service. We might call this, “do it yourself” spirituality.

Tarot card showing the emperor on his throne

The authentic self is real, constant, and stable. Once found and accepted, it can provide a centre, still point, and anchor in life. (Image: public domain.)

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