A recent cartoon in the paper showed a psychologist and his patient as two onions. The one on the couch had shed many layers, while the psychologist smugly noted that now they were getting somewhere. Silly isn’t it. Are the inner layers of the onion any more real, as onions go, than the outer layers?
Too much of modern psychology, at least as commonly understood, does the same thing with human beings, holding that the persona, the facade, we present to the public is not as authentic, as genuine, as the real person that lies beneath the surface. The deeper we go, the more we will discover what is true and virtuous about the real us. That’s ridiculous. Whatever we present as our public face is as much an authentic presentation of who we are as any other part of our psyche. It is not the whole person, but it is as genuine as any other part. The good fellow well met two bit phony we have all encountered is, at least in part, an authentic good fellow well met two bit phony.
Most of us are better than that, but whatever our outer image, it is an important presentation of who we really are, at least in part. Who do you present in public? I have a half dozen or so personae to present before the various publics I’m likely to encounter: priest, lover, wise elder, enthusiastic if ignorant nature nut, quiet introvert, etc. The point is that each of them is an authentic presentation of who I am in the context of the publics I am among at the time. Amusing things, sometimes embarrassing, can happen when the wrong persona is displayed in the wrong place. Wonderful, laughter filled conversations with new acquaintances have come to an abrupt halt when it becomes known that I’m an Episcopal priest. Wearing the required black suit, shirt and clerical collar while walking hand in hand with my wife through Grand Central during rush hour, and then kissing her goodbye, was akin to Moses parting the Red Sea. Who even knew an introvert would do such a thing? Offering one of my trademark flippant bon mots in the wrong setting has earned confused, angry looks from my audience. And so it goes.
Of course there are deeper more private parts of the self, and they are also authentic, but they are not more authentic. The problem is that these other, deeper parts of the self often go unrecognized, unknown, and uncared for. In return they can haunt us, scare us, accuse us and inhibit our ability to prosper in the life we are given. It is not that we need to dig deep to find our real self, it is that we need to dig deep to find our whole self if, indeed, that is what is called for.
The popular idea is that the tarnished self lives on the surface, but the golden self lies untarnished and deeper. Don’t count on it. Not all digging hits gold. Sometimes there is just a lot of dirt down there. Besides, not all that is gold is good. Not all that is dirt is bad. Worse yet, sometimes we get preoccupied with fixing things that don’t need to be fixed, or we get sidetracked into trying to fix others as a way to fix ourselves. Systems theory, for instance, has sometimes led us to believe that we can’t fix whatever it is about ourselves we think needs to be fixed unless others in the system first reveal and fix whatever lies deep within them that we think needs to be revealed and fixed. That can be true, but often, perhaps most often, it is little more than a very rude, possibly vengeful, invasion of personal space just to see what kind of trouble can be stirred up.
And how did fix get into it anyway? Do you see how easy it is to drift from discovering the authentic self to fixing things? Fixing means to repair a broken thing so that it is as good as new, as if whatever broke it never happened. In counseling that very quickly becomes a quest to change the past so that what happened becomes something that didn’t happen. A lot of damage can be inflicted along the way on a quest like that. Moreover, finding the authentic and fixing the broken are different things.
Not to get too Jungian, but to get very Christian about it, what we are after is not so much fixing as integrating. Ah, look at this, here is a part of me I didn’t know about. I wonder where it can fit into the rest of me to help make my life more full? Maybe it just needs to stay on a shelf in the basement, and I can get it if I need it. Oh, here’s a memory, and not a good one. It hurts. If I can’t get rid of it, how can I stop it from hurting, or learn to live with hurt that does not damage. Here’s another one. It brings joy. I wonder if they can fit together in some way? That’s the kind of healing Jesus brought, a healing to wholeness, a healing that restored the parts to their proper place in the whole.
On the one hand, even now we can seek that kind of healing from God in Christ through the discipline of prayerful meditation in which we consciously present before God the many parts of our self, both known and unknown, by words and sighs too deep for words. We don’t have to ask for anything. We need only to present with as much honesty as we can muster.
On the other hand, we are also called to be agents of God’s love continuing Christ’s healing ministry in the world by being fully present to as much of another’s whole person as we are able to apprehend while speaking truth in love with them. I’d like to leave it there, but personal experience suggests that too many who call themselves Christian seem to think that speaking truth in love means criticizing, accusing and demanding adherence to their particular take on truth, but with a smile. Others, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, mumble a few platitudes of no particular value. Neither is the way Jesus did it, and before this turns into a book, I will leave it at that.