In our times, the fatal vulnerabilities of the modern way of ‘constructing self-hood’ are becoming ever more evident. Joanna Macy, who writes from a Buddhist perspective, has argued for the need to “green” the self by rediscovering its participation in ecological and cosmic networks. This would require, it seems, harnessing both the self-protective and the self-giving potentials of human beings.
What exactly is the self?
Self” and “person,” as well as related words such as “soul” and “spirit,” have different meanings in different systems of thought, so an initial clarification of usage is needed. In this essay, “self” refers to an ever-restless process of construction of identity based in self-awareness and aimed at maintaining one’s integrity, coherence, and social esteem It is as necessary to competent psychological function as having a skeleton is to walking. To fail to develop an adequately coherent and self-protective self is a severe pathology, and likely to result in behavior destructive to oneself and others.
From the Autonomous Self to the Narrative Self
A major component of what we call post-modernity has been a profound critique of the modern concept of self-hood. Today, at least in academia, the norm is to firmly reject the concept of the self as an autonomous interior entity that is transcendent to the body and the material world. Instead, the self is understood as an ongoing interpretive process conditioned by all aspects of the individual’s embodied involvement in the world. In this postmodern view, the self is dialogical, and (in a certain sense) “fictional,” since it consists of an identity narrative that is selective and interpretive.
Some go so far as to affirm a more radical “no self” perspective, somewhat along Buddhist lines—although even Buddhists are not fully in agreement with one another on the question of whether some kind of functional, though contingent, “self” exists on the psychological level.
The consensus today, then, is to see the self as a story-telling process. The purpose of this “selfing” process is to interpret past, present, and imagined future in a way that maintains an inner sense of continuity, integrity, and meaningfulness while contributing to the fulfillment of one’s social and material goals. Despite the aim of coherence and continuity, this story-telling process is actually highly responsive to changing relationships and circumstances. This means that there is likely to be more than one story line in process, and even within a given story line reinterpretation is constantly going on based on new circumstances or new goals.
Lets take a look at the exploration of how the psychological process of “selfing” has changed in the postmodern era-
Selfing – Traditional vs Modern
In their book The Dialogical Self, Hubert and Agnieszka Hermans describe three types of “selfing”: traditional, modern, and postmodern. Traditional selfing occurs in a social world perceived as unified, hierarchical, and authoritative. Insofar as the traditional self’s storytelling mainly follows the cultural script, it is likely to maintain a deep sense of unity and “rightness.” Modern selfing, shaped by an increasingly mechanized and anti-traditional world, tells its story in terms of the “sovereign self” whose inner core is separate from, and maintains power over, all that is other. The modern self emphasizes “personal goals, inner strength, overcoming resistance, personal achievement and heroism, masculinity, autonomy, future-orientation, progress, and control of the situation.”
“Selfing” in Late Modernity – Lacks Inner Connect and Stability
The most dominant challenge is that life in contemporary societies is characterized by a “swirling sea of relations” that constantly change at a staggering rate. Daily life is saturated by media unceasingly spewing forth a cacophony of often-superficial stories that do not hang together or collectively point toward anything worthy of a life commitment. Meanwhile, everything—including the most intimate aspects of our identities, our relationships, and even our spirituality—has been commodified. Well-funded experts in “branding” work day and night to persuade us that if only we buy this particular clothing item, or this mood-enhancing dietary supplement, or this slick new spiritual practice, we will find happiness and success. Their goal, as sociologist Bernard McGrane puts it, is to convince us that “life becomes radiant through consumption”.
To be human in this culture is defined by having at each moment a staggering array of identity options, among which we must constantly pick and choose. People can flit in and out of vast numbers of ever-shifting and often “virtual” relationships with people and groups around the world.
Need for a balance between the “Self-Protecting” and “Self-Giving” aspects –
Every human act deploys a complex dynamic of self-protection (self-hood) and self-giving (person-hood). My purpose is by no means simply to denigrate the former and idealize the latter. It is, rather, to ask how—this dynamic can be opened up in a way that can more effectively protect human and other life on Earth. This would require, intuitively, harnessing both the self-protective and the self-giving potentials of human beings.
There are some people in whom trauma or other pathologies has led to a distorted self-protectiveness that seems to so profoundly obscure any capacity to give or receive love that it may require great conviction even to believe that they have potential to manifest relational person-hood. And there are others in whom the story of the self is permeated with such generosity, kindness, and radiance that one barely notices any self-protective tendencies, as one is so quickly drawn into a sense of loving relationship with the person. Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between these two more extreme possibilities.