I'm not sure I have a self. How do I get one?

Things are fine, but when I look inside, I don't see a coherent, durable person. Is that normal?

Published August 8, 2006 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Readers,

Hey there. How are you? It's me, Cary.

Just wanted to say, I've gotten a few letters lately suggesting that I seem to be going through something difficult, and kindly offering support and encouragement. I appreciate that.

Frankly, yeah, you're right. There have been a lot of "stressful events" in my life lately that have sapped my energy and, while I may not have actually been nuts, I certainly have felt nuts.

I'm a pretty open person in general, so my natural inclination is to write about all this stuff. The thing is, there are privacy issues. Lord knows, not my privacy -- I'm sort of a compulsive discloser -- but the privacy of others. This is about, like, other people's lives. So I thought I would just acknowledge that yes indeed some stuff has been going on. It's family stuff. And my wife and I are dealing and we'll be OK. And thanks once again for the letters.

I would also like to just take note of the fact that under stress I tend to rant -- or at the very least to write long. As a writer I value discipline but I also value passion. Sometimes those formal qualities are in formal conflict. So I might rant now and then. But it changes from day to day. Basically, I'm constantly reinventing this thing. It might get a little crazy at times.

So now, having said that, let us move on to the letter.

Dear Cary,

There are a lot of things I love about my life. I like my job; I like my home. In a few months, I'm marrying a wonderful man whom I love deeply and who I know loves me just as much. I just sent out a stack of invitations to a couple of dozen wonderful friends.

The thing is, though, when I really think about it, I'm not sure why my fiancé thinks I'm so great, or why my friends like me at all. At my best, I tell myself there must be something there to attract so many good people into my life. At my worst, I believe they are all just being nice, are desperate, or are friends by association. (I tend to be reserved and introverted, but I often get close to one dynamic person with a lot of friends.)

At the moment, my friends are scattered all over the country (and a few in other parts of the world), and none of them live in the city where I live. I've been here for a year and have made a few attempts to reach out locally, but I haven't made any real friends nearby. I also tend not to be very good at keeping in touch with friends who are far away, and that's been an issue for years. I've gotten into arguments a few times with friends who felt very hurt by this, and by now I feel like a terrible friend who doesn't deserve to have friends at all. Which, of course, may be the underlying reason why I don't keep in touch in the first place: I don't think I'm important enough to be missed.

I know I have some problems with self-esteem. I grew up with a mother who numbed the pain of her past with alcohol and a father who called me immature, selfish and spoiled. As an adult, I can recognize that name-calling is immature, that insulting someone when they don't do things your way is selfish and that children don't get spoiled by themselves. But after years of that, it's hard to switch off the internal tape player now.

Still, it's more than just the self-esteem. How can I like myself when I don't really know who I am? I'm happy in my relationship, and I like what I do, but I know there's a deeper element of self beneath action and ties to others. What is a self, really, and how do I find mine? My lack of self-worth and self-concept, I guess you could call it, is affecting not just my relationships with others but also my ability (or willingness) to take care of myself physically and emotionally, to be productive with my creative work, etc. How can I be centered enough to do these things when I don't even know where or what my center is?

Missing in Action

Dear Missing,

In reference to your anxiety and uncertainty about having a self, I think you should think about postmodernism. Check this out.

I actually started getting into Fredric Jameson when I discovered that people who are younger than I are really, really, fundamentally different in how they process what we call "reality." I'm a relic. I'm surfing the very last crumbling, feathering tip of the crashing modern wave. Culturally, I'm dead or almost dead. I have a self. Sure. But I'm a relic. What I'm doing is high modernism. I don't even know why anyone can understand what I'm doing, except that we are so slow to become what we are -- that is, we still understand this dead language because it's what our parents spoke.

Read Fredric Jameson where he talks about the depth model of self versus the postmodern self. Maybe the self you're talking about -- the self that you're worried about not having -- is the old-fashioned high modernist self. Maybe you don't need that kind of self. Maybe responding and sorting and processing are enough. Maybe there isn't a static self to discover.

But more concretely, you're very anxious now. You had trouble with your parents. You've got a wedding coming up. But there's your anxiety and then there's your anxiety about your anxiety.

Where's the anxiety coming from?

A good cure for postmodern dizziness is meditation. In fact, the meditative state is maybe a great metaphor for how we must proceed through the postmodern cornfield, all grown high and strange.

Meditate. There doesn't have to be anything down there to find. But meditate. It may calm you down. Just calming down is a good thing. There doesn't have to be a self to discover.

Now here is the thing. As I said in my letter to readers, I have been dealing with a lot of family stuff lately. Some of the family stuff required spending time in the Florida Panhandle. So I was sitting outside on a hot July night in Florida recently, thinking about your question and writing about it in my journal.

So I am transcribing from the journal now:

There are many ways to describe a self: As a set of memories, for instance. You are the storehouse of all that has occurred; you are the repository of and expert on all events occurring to you, a curator of memories, a collector.

Then there are your talents and abilities, the things you do with particular relish or style. Most interesting to me, though, is your collection of incidents of maximum impact, moments of insight, life-changing events: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, the thing that has made all the difference. Some of these things involve unknowing knowledge, unsayable understandings. Certain things work for us: certain painters, certain tunes. That we can know dependably what works for us is also a measure of self.

Consider what others see when they see us: A kaleidoscopic procession of tiny performances. We are a canvas, too, a movie screen upon which others shine their light and, recognizing themselves or thinking they recognize themselves, love their own images seen on our blankness -- on what we feel to be our lack of existence and which may really be our lack of existence!

What else do others see in us? If we have ever been kind, or laughed at a joke, or smiled a certain way or paid a compliment, or looked into another's eyes with piercing intensity, then we have given something. As a consequence, people may feel that we are generous and kind. What we have given them may have been done in secret, unbeknown even to ourselves: We cannot always know what we are giving people; they get things from us we don't understand. We help people without knowing it. We may have simply responded naturally, but it is taken as a gift, an act of kindness.

Also: We magnify others with our attentions. Have you ever been with someone whose interest in you seems inexhaustible, who can drink up as much of your blather as you can dish out, who never tires of your shovelfuls? Your shoulders tire of the shoveling and your eyelids grow heavy but ... she glistens, mesmerized; you are unable to bore her no matter how dull you feel your words to be: You are the only person in the room and are thus magnified and so feel royal royal royal.

That is how it is with some people who don't necessarily know us but have felt our effect and thus feel they know us, even if we feel that we do not know ourselves.

What do they know really? They know our kaleidoscopic sequence of tiny performances. They are familiar with our work. They know what we show them.

So there are many things that might constitute a self. But the interesting and somewhat contrary view is that the self is bondage, that our happiness can be attained only through losing self -- by merging or acquiescing in something higher beyond us.

Which comes first, the something higher or the freedom from self? One way to approach it is to focus on losing the self. Whatever lies beyond will come naturally once the self dissolves like a shell, ushering one into the world beyond.

Another approach is to declare belief in something beyond the self and try to thus break free -- what I would think of as a Protestant evangelical Christian approach: I accept Jesus as my personal savior; now let's get on with the transformation of self!

But what is this thing that happens, this spiritual awakening that is a loosening of the bondage of self? For me it was at first literally a formal recognition of an altered spatial relationship, the admission of a third entity that was not me and not other, like ...

A possum just sauntered by me as I sit outdoors at midnight in the warm air of the Florida Panhandle -- that possum appearing on cue as if to illustrate my point precisely: There is me, there is not me, and then there is this little possum that is walking by, evidence of the indifferent but connected other toward which we can only respond with silent awe and amusement!

O possum, relieve me of the bondage of self that I may be of greater use to my fellows. I am here in the scrub pine backwoods redneck land of my beloved people: My fatherland and motherland where my grandparents are buried. Bless me, O possum.


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