Every human act deploys a complex dynamic of self-protection (selfhood) and self-giving (personhood). 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.
Ultimate Vulnerability: The Failure of the ‘Self-Protective‘ Function of Selfing
Much more could be said, but the question these studies raise is whether the type of selfhood emerging within this late modern world has any possibility of sustaining a future for humanity. Self-making is meant to be self-protective, but in its current form it is failing to fulfill the function of protecting human life and legacy beyond the present generation. The fatal vulnerability remains that of modernity: the separation of the self from its integral connection with the natural world.
What seems to be happening is that both separated partners—Earth, and human selves—are spiraling in tandem towards destructive, out-of-control “overheating.” For the Earth, the spiral of overheating is intensifying pollution and climate change. For humans, the spiral of overheating is a style of selfhood that has lost touch with both inner and outer sources of meaning, stability, and resilience. These two spirals are feeding each other, with increasingly deadly consequences.
The question at hand is whether there remains any possibility that we could still give birth to another possibility—one in which we humans reclaim the self-protective value of re-calibrating our self-making in responsiveness to the Earth processes with which we are, in fact, completely interdependent. This is what Macy called “the greening of the self,” and it appears to be the only scenario in which our Earth can be sustained as a habitat for humans (and vast numbers of other species) for more than a few more decades.
I call the second movement of the rhythm of the Spirit, in which the self is reconstructed afresh, “the way of remembering.” This plays on both the role of memory, and the alternate meaning of “remembering” or making a new whole. Since the story of the self is founded in an interpretation of memories, a renewed story requires a revised interpretation of what has happened in one’s life, as well as of the potential this creates for a desired future.
Unfortunately, change in the deeply embedded patterns of our self-hood is never easy, and many forms of resistance waylay our ability both to abandon ourselves and to allow ourselves to be remembered afresh. For the traditional style of self, resistance perhaps most often takes the form of a kind of rigidity based in a narrow set of cultural expectations for how one ought to live a meaningful life. For the modern style of self, resistance may be withdrawal into the fortress of one’s presumed autonomy and domination. In the postmodern self-style, resistance may be the unwillingness to take anything seriously—even the looming devastation of the planet and the potential demise of our own species.
Hope for the Greened Self
My conviction is that the Spirit is always and everywhere breathing in and around us. We have been created by and for this rhythm of both self-giving (person-hood) and self-protecting (self-hood). Those who write about how to get people to vote or act for ecological causes have pointed out that it is usually more effective to focus first on how the proposals will benefit them and their children and grandchildren—in other words, to appeal first to the self-protective self, however, will require also awakening the self-giving person-hood that is our most profound human heritage. In this emerging era, it is more imperative than ever that human beings find the path to living as responsive and responsible kin within a sustainable Earth community.
How can this come to be? This would require, it seems, harnessing both the ‘self-protective’ and the ‘self-giving’ potentials of human beings.
Here we must return again to consider the “vulnerability” that is identified in the opening of this essay. The self is instinctively self-protective because, like every created thing, it is intrinsically vulnerable: that is, it is constantly subject to wounding, disintegration, and death. But this vulnerability can have two potential outcomes. One potential of vulnerability is that instability may catastrophically compound into spiraling levels of chaos, violence, and fragmentation. The paradox of the instinct of self-protection is that if it is left on its own without the complementary movement of self-giving, the ultimate result is self-destruction. This is what we fear when we speak of the negative vulnerability of the postmodern style of selfing, with its tendencies to narcissism and other pathologies.
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