Posted by: gcarkner | August 29, 2012

Self-Concept Angst

I want to introduce some profound ideas  through quotes on the false and true self from Parker Palmer, a brilliant Quaker educator. They are  from his book Let Your Life Speak which I read  summer of 2011. I trust you will resonate and see their relevance to our discussion on the identity formation of graduate students. Graduate students are not a tabula rasa (blank slate); they are all subjects in process (Julia Kristeva), being formed and shaped by various forces, relationships, politics, experiences and ideas. But they also have an important role in their own formation; they need not be passive. Here is the wisdom of Palmer: Gordon

The people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision. They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out—and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood of millions of others. (p. 32)

The pilgrimage towards true self will take time, many years and places. The world needs people with patience and the passion to make that pilgrimage not only for their own sake but also as a social and political act. The world still waits for the truth that sets us free—my truth, your truth, our truth—the truth that was seeded in the earth when each of us arrived here formed in the image of God. Cultivating that truth … is the authentic vocation of every human being. (p. 36)

To embrace weakness, liability and darkness as part of who I am gives that part less sway over me, because all it ever wanted was to be acknowledged as part of my whole self. At the same time, embracing one’s wholeness makes life more demanding—because once you do that, you must live your whole life. Deut 30:19 “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore choose life.” (p. 71)

Below are five of the shadowy monsters or cultural subtexts identified by Palmer, which biblical discourse can expose in us for our good. I summarize from Let Your Life Speak (pp. 86-90):

1. Insecurity about Identity and Worth: When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own. We deprive the many of their identity so the few can enhance their own (from a win-lose perspective). Identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends on the simple fact that we are the children of God, valued in and for ourselves.

2. Belief in a Universe as Battleground, Hostile to Human Interests: This assumption encourages us to create the conditions for war in various aspects of life and work and it is very destructive. There is another way of doing business: which is collegial, consensual, cooperative, and communal. This alternative assumption believes that the universe is working together for the good, that harmony is more fundamental than warfare. [allusion to virtue]

3. Functional Atheism: This is the belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me. It is a life without grace, without transcendence. It causes pathology on every level of our lives—leading us to impose our will on others and stressing our relationships and ourselves unnecessarily. It eventuates in burnout, depression and despair; we hit the wall of our self limits. This drives collective frenzy as well, refusing the ethic of Sabbath. We can, however, share the load, and thereby liberate and empower others.

4. Our Fear of the Natural Chaos of Life: We try to reduce or eliminate the messiness of life and this is projected as rigidity of rules and procedures, creating an ethos that is imprisoning rather than empowering. But chaos is the precursor to creativity; God started with chaos and then created cosmos. To fear chaos may well end in creating death. Think about it.

5. Denial of Death Itself (fear of failure): This leads us to think that we must keep resuscitating things no longer alive, or keep the old battles going. This can also lead to depression or getting stuck spiritually, doing the same things over and over again without any improvement or positive change. Science knows the benefits of the death of a theory; it leads to progress of knowledge. Death does not have the final word; new life can emerge from it. Death is not the final limit of our life. Think resurrection, retrieval, renewal. One closed door (as harsh as that can be) can lead to ten new open ones. Palmer, p. 94 writes : “We do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world where fear is multiplied. There is also trust, hope, faith. We can choose to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move towards others from a place of promise instead of anxiety … ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.”

Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” D. Stephen Long writes (Speaking of God, p. 159):

Only on the basis of an ontology of love can gift be understood. Because love, and not pure reason, is the basic structure of being, the failure of human reason to achieve infinite desires is not negative but positive. Thus we do not need to negate reason in order to believe, but rather to supplement and intensify it. We receive knowledge as a gift. … Gift, another name for the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of being, the perfection that surrounds us with an inevitable desire for truth, goodness and beauty. It illumines our lives.


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