This post by Vanessa at A Fanciful Twist got me thinking about this yesterday... please take a lot of this as hypothetical, I don't mean any of this blog to refer to anyone specifically, I'm simply talking about ideas in a more or less abstract sense.
I think that two of our biggest fears as humans are these:
- That someone will see who we really are and disapprove of it, reject it.
- That external forces will make their way in to our real self and change it without our consent.
And so we build ourselves into a fortress to guard against those possibilities. But, we don't need to, and I don't think we were meant to. We can make a lot of choices in life that will allow us to start to dismantle the mass of stuff we pile on ourselves to make ourselves unrecognizable. I think the first step is to want to really know who you are.
Kierkegaard talks about the spiritual sickness unto death being despair, and specifically despair at being oneself, or despairingly willing to be oneself. That there is a relationship of oneself to itself (that you have a relationship with yourself), and that this relationship was brought into being by God, and therefore, in relating to yourself, you also relate to God, who brought the relationship of self to itself into being. So, the spiritual sickness unto death is the imbalance of that sort of triangle of Self-to-Self-to-God.
So, it seems to me, the first step in getting well from this sickness is to want to know who you are, who is really you, under all the things you and others have piled on top of you over the years and which keep you from seeing who you really are. We grow up in a particular culture and potentially one or more sub-cultures, and we just assimilate the values of those cultures without thinking and assume they are a part of who we are. We are told things about ourselves by the people around us, and by ourself, and we take them to be a part of who we are. We are given roles in society and we take them to be a part of who we are. We do all of this without really even thinking about it, and before we know it, we have this sort of shell on that represents what we do, but not who we are.
It's pretty easy to just continue in this path, and most people do unless something kind of jars them out of it... it's the path of least resistance, because it's supported by the whole system of things. We often think about, in the back of our minds, who we are and what we were meant for, but because we've spent so long pushing that away, we're frightened of all the things that might happen if we really tried looking - we would have to go against the grain of society, break habits, potentially lose friends, jobs, not to mention actually look ourselves honestly in the eyes and see ourselves clearly - and since it's been a very very long time since many people have really seen themselves clearly, they don't really know what to expect. There is so much unknown in the process, and humans are not good at handling unknown.
So if you have an experience to jar you out of this path - for instance, you decide to go live in another country (there are a lot of other possible ways this could happen), and you actually engage in the culture there - you start to realize some of the things that you believed were a part of yourself were actually just cultural values, beliefs or customs that you had assimilated, that it really doesn't have anything to do with you yourself. You may find that things which were socially unacceptable in your own culture (including things you enjoyed but were you pushed down because they were "nerdy" or "unprofitable" or "useless") are welcomed in another. You may realize that something that was socially acceptable in your own culture, that you had adopted because it was socially acceptable is irrelevant or has negative connotation in another culture. This may get you wondering what else there is that you had believed was part of yourself that really isn't - and you start to pick away pieces.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery (who wrote the Little Prince) made the comment, talking about the evolution of airplanes (he was a mail pilot in the 1920's-1940's) that as they developed, their design become more and more minimalistic, and he made a more general comment that a thing reaches perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
I imagine this process of picking away what is not really a part of you usually starts as a rather tentative search, maybe even not entirely conscious... but as you start to evaluate and pick away what isn't a core part of who you are, you start to realize things that are a core part of who you are. If, along this process, you decide to look deeper into those things that are a part of who you really are and experiment with them, you find that they bring you a lot of satisfaction. At some point, you probably get pretty excited about them and you decide it's time to let other people know about them.
When you do this, you probably get a very wide range of reactions, from "oh." to "why on earth would you _____?" and maybe every now and then "that is fantastic, it fits you so well!" However, you find that the last response is likely by far the least common of the three categories.
You probably find this discouraging, and you might consider just diving back into the stream of everything and the old way of life, because you feel like you found bits of who you really were, but it didn't make any real difference. This is a moment of decision, when you decide whether you will continue to seek out who you are and what you were meant for, or whether you will give it up and go back to how things were. A key thing to remember at this point, is that change starts with you. Remember that satisfaction you got from exploring the pieces of you that really make up who you are? Remember how excited you got about them? In those moments you weren't thinking about whether they would make a difference to other people - they made a difference to you.
If you, at this point, decide to continue digging into who you are and what you were made for, you may eventually find yourself at a point where you have to make some decisions about life circumstances. You may find that you have friends who prefer you the way you were, because it was more convenient, beneficial or comfortable for them. There might be other friends who you keep relationships with but who just kind of fade to a bit of a distance because your life changes paths and so your lives just don't cross very often. You may realize that what you had been doing for a job isn't what you feel you ought to be doing in the future. You may realize that there are certain other activities that you feel are more important to do that things you are currently involved in. You may feel the need to give up or not renew previous commitments, and it might take some real give and take and a lot of talking about things with people you care about to get them to understand the direction you've taken, or at least to trust that it's ok - in general, you may just feel the need to make some life changes.
All of these things should be done with as much care and grace as possible if and when they come up, but it is possible that they will be quite difficult and may not make you well-liked with certain people.
On the other hand, those people who you spent the effort to bring along with you will be closer than ever - and you will find other people in the course of doing what really excites you and putting yourself out in the world (rather than behind a fortress) who will be inspired, encouraged and excited by what you're doing.
So, now to bring this all back around to the beginning of this post and the title. I think that as we dig deeper into who we are and why we are here, and we see it and process it and become ok with it, not just begrudgingly, but start to be excited to be who we are and to discover more about ourselves, and to learn and grow, we find it easier to give grace and forgiveness and support to other people. We find it more exciting to help someone else become what they were meant to be than to cut them down so we feel better about ourselves. Besides that, I believe that we were all put here with a purpose, and the more we know who we are, and live with that in view, the closer we get to doing just what we were meant for. We begin to see that there is a place for us in the scheme of things, and we find circumstances in general to be much less threatening to us than we had previously, which allows us to handle them much more calmly, to not feel the need to be defensive about everything, or to be right about everything or to control everything. We feel less need to join the race for approval from as many people as possible, and more need to join the group of people filling their place in life. I think we also come to find that it is not our true selves that change due to external influences, but only the artificial additions that pile up on top of it.
The true soul is impregnable. We can look into it or open it wide without fear. Everyone has a process to walk through to get to this point, and I daresay none of us really reach the end of the journey here. We all walk different paths to get there, but we can encourage each other along, give each other safety to grow in, provide our own experience and judgment if asked for and in general, use our energy to urge people on, rather than control them.
Let's do that. I think it's a good idea.