Glory to God for All Things

The True Self and the Story of Me

At some point early in life, we begin to construct a narrative. Composed of memory and emotion, complete with  critical commentary, this narrative becomes what we consider to be the self. This narrative may be revised and reinterpreted any number of times across a lifetime. The great tragedy, from a Christian point-of-view, is that this carefully constructed and defended story is not the true self. At best, it could be termed the ego, but even that grants it a privilege to which it is not entitled. The true self is quite distinct. Distinguishing between the two is one of the most essential tasks of the spiritual life. It is also a task almost completely lost within modern Christian awareness.

Within certain strands of Orthodox Christian writing, the true self is seen as centered in the heart. Though the heart carries a variety of meanings (some contradictory) in both Scripture and spiritual writings – it is used in this article as shorthand for that place within us that it the true seat of the self – that place where we meet God and where we encounter paradise. This will be more clear as I write.

Fr. Meletios Webber, using this same understanding of the heart, states:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. (From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).

This seat of the self is not a narrative construct. Being entirely in the present, it is decidedly not a construct of anything. It is not our self-image. It is not our projection of desires or fears. It is not in danger or need such that it needs defending. It is the true givenness of our existence (given by God) and is therefore not in need of our self-definition. It is not the product of our intelligence or our choice. It is not generated by our nationality, genetics or social position. In short, it is not any of the things that we use to construct the illusion of the ego.

Modern man looks with terror at the threat of the diseases of the mind (particularly dementia). It is certainly a great tragedy (my mother was suffering from dementia at the time of her death). But the threat it presents to us is the loss of the many things from which we construct the ego. We too easily jump to the conclusion that the “self” has been lost. There is indeed a great loss, but the self remains. Dignity and worth remain (when properly understood). By the same token, a person in a “persistent vegetative state” remains a person and the self, the heart, is intact. A great measure of our terror lies in the fact that we cannot imagine an existence that is not identical with the narrative construct of the mind.

One aspect of our fallen existence is that the mind (thoughts and emotions) has come to dominate the heart. Indeed, it dominates the heart to such an extent that most people have little to no awareness of the heart. In popular parlance, “heart” means “emotions.” Thoughts and emotions are not evil nor are they somehow opposed to the heart. However, we are disordered. The heart is the true seat of the self and is meant to be that place out of which we live. Thoughts and emotions are meant to serve the heart and are not meant to create a false self.

Were our thoughts and emotions simply “information” the problem they create would likely not exist. But there are often very dark sources for our thoughts and emotions. The memories that shape our narrative are also the stuff that creates our wounds. In deep places, even very secret places, the need for the “ego” to protect itself can be overwhelming. Much of the material that makes up the actions we confess as “sin” comes precisely from these dark wounds.

Perhaps the most common such place of darkness can be described under the heading of shame. In modern therapeutic language, shame is the sense we have of ourselves as damaged and worthless. Guilt is the term used to describe how we feel about something we’ve done wrong. Shame is the sense we have that we ourselves are wrong. In many people, this deep sense of self-loathing is extremely toxic. I offer a sample description by a contemporary therapist about shame-generated thoughts:

[One] result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private, secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense, which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks–like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable–that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything. Additionally, people who are always criticizing others are usually trying to give the shame away—-the critic defends herself against the bad feelings by believing herself to be better than others. The critic may need to feel superior to avoid being submerged in feelings of inferiority. Rage disguises shame too. One way to fight against humiliation is to attack the perceived attacker. Shame and rage in combination can often result in verbal or physical abuse.

Compare this to Fr. Meletios’ description of the actions of the mind:

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task…. Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right.

Our shame-based perception of the world is a deep distortion. The information we think to be true and the judgments we make miss the mark. Our problem is often more than the failure of the mind to be grounded in the heart. The mind (thoughts and emotions) is simply insane (insanis).

The fathers are quite clear about all of this. Before we begin the grace-filled work of illumination (knowing God and being conformed to His image), there is the work of purification. Most people engage the work of purification as though it were a stationary bicycle. We battle one disordered thought with another disordered thought, even turning on ourselves with more loathing. We not only judge others – we condemn ourselves for the act of judging. We echo St. Paul’s cry for help, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

The way forward begins with the recognition of our true predicament. The mind will not be taught to behave. The toxic sources within our inner selves need to be addressed. Confession – and even therapy in competent hands, are important. Spiritual direction with someone who understands the place of the heart and the means by which an individual finds it is essential. Refusing to accept the conclusions of our inner narrative and the ego that it generates is fundamental to Christian repentance. Concerning the mind (and thus the false self), St. Paul tells us:

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast….

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 1:21-23 and 3:1-4).

38 Responses to “The True Self and the Story of Me”

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  1. Ric says:

    Thank you for the beautiful words. I am just discovering the Orthodox Church, and recently your blog.

  2. Karen says:

    Father, bless!

    I recognize my own struggles here, not least of all in the temptation found in the description here:

    “The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything.”

    I find myself responding this way many times after Confession. The only way I let myself “off the hook” to actually accept the absolution given is by a performance-driven inner commitment (which is usually broken hours, or even minutes, after Confession is over) to “amend my life” according to the counsel of my Priest and, by an act of sheer willpower (of which I have none!), not commit the offense(s) again.

    Perhaps you could follow up with a post with some counsel for practical ways to get out of this vicious circle. What are some “words” you have been given for those of us perfectionists who long to live a life pleasing in every respect to God, but who have difficulty trusting that God is really willing for us to get off of the self-inflicted “performance treadmill?” How do we let go of our ego/pride and desire for control and a good image/reputation (which is really a lack of the self-control that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit) in order to receive God’s grace?

  3. Karen,
    I hope to offer a number of words. I pray that the most of us to which this applies (I say most only because I dare not say all) will recognize ourselves (and see it for what it is not – ourself).

  4. sermonwriter says:

    Wow! Fr. Stephen, I have been contemplating this article all day, and at day’s-end I am having more than just an epiphany. I hope to be able to share this with you soon, IF I can manage the words to communicate to you what it is that I am thinking. In short, it has to do with communication. Most of us communicate from our ‘narrative’, with God and others. There is only ONE venue that I have experienced so far, where that narrative is discouraged, and the true self is encouraged. I sure hope I can get back to you soon on what it is I mean and make any sense at the same time. :) Thanks.

  5. Steven Clark says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen

  6. Mary says:

    Father this is wonderful! I just read a chapter from Merton’s No Man is an Island last night on Being and Doing…and this is a terrific follow-through…

    Mary

  7. Michael Bauman says:

    I have found my self most aware of who I am in confession(both exilerating and daunting); most healed of my false self when I am seen by one who loves me and largely ignores my false self.

  8. dinoship says:

    Michael, Karen,
    In my experience, it is indeed through blessed confession that the healing Grace (that restores the true self) visits us the most and transforms us.
    I don’t know how to word this properly though, but there is a clear connection with the Cross, and the ‘retention’ of this Grace, since:
    In practical terms, and in the long run, one is only capable of retaining that measure of God’s transforming Grace that he can gladly bear as tribulation, (i.e.: that equivalent measure in tribulation), as difficulty, as temptation, as burden, as Cross, with gratitude and thankfulness…

  9. kimfrank says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Can you comment more about how thoughts and emotions can serve the heart? I’m having a hard time understanding how the narrative created by the ego can be entirely separate from the true self, and yet so prevalent in how we understand ourselves and others. I also struggle with the demands of creating a narrative that don’t come from the ego’s need to protect itself, but come from the expectations of others. For example, writing a CV, or identifying your strengths in a performance review, etc… Is doing this simply an excercise in lying? Can identifying your strengths as well as your weaknesses be useful? (Understanding that weaknesses can also be strengths etc.) I think what I am trying to say is that we can’t escape the need to generate narratives in our culture very easily, so how can we do this in ways that are more healthy? I understand what you are saying about the mystery of the true self and I do long to come to know my true self. However, I also live in a world that requires me to participate in writing a narrative about myself. I have also experienced many people imposing a narrative on me. It is not possible to untangle yourself from these narratives. Even saints have narratives written about them…

  10. kimfrank,
    Yes. I think our culture has expectations that we have to accept and conform to. I could not write a CV of my true self – it’s “hid with Christ in God.” Sometimes I think it would be as follows: “Has waited patiently for the ceaseless chatter and the disorder emotions to be quiet…”
    We have an extremely deep attachment to the ego’s narrative – as stated – we think of it as the self.
    For most of us, coming to a point in our life where we are not utterly dominated by thoughts and emotions – reacting out of darker wounds such as shame – would be a great relief and a huge leap forward. From there we begin to pray more clearly and to love without fear. For our “center” to be accepting and not judging, not comparing or angry, etc. is to live from a quiet place. The thoughts do what thoughts should do (there are even legitimate needs to compare and consider – but in freedom and not compulsion). The emotions in proper order would feel as they should about what they should. Joy, sadness, compassion, etc. for the other but not about a running train of uncontrolled thought.

    But, first things first. I would not worry or concern myself with how any of this is down the road. You can’t live now by thinking about then. So we practice recollection – sitting still – breathing – quieting the mind and its thoughts and emotions – and simply being in the presence of God. It is often the case that while we are “being present” the thoughts and emotions will start buzzing again – don’t react with frustration – just quietly bring them back to rest. Sometimes simple thoughts that are anchored in the present are helpful. “All things work together for good…” I use a very “corny” phrase from a culture poem of the 1920′s “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…” I find it very comforting and quieting. It’s like whispering reassuring words to a child who is upset…or calming an overactive puppy.
    When things are quiet, just be quiet. There is an awareness within us in the quiet…this is a glimpse of the heart. It is a very good place to begin the Jesus Prayer, “Lord…Jesus…Christ…Son of God…have mercy on me…a sinner.” Quietly. Keeping the prayer within the quiet. Try not to watch yourself (“look I’m being quiet…”).

    Five minutes at the most at first. Set a timer (I use my cell phone) so you don’t have to look at the time. Five minutes will seem long at first.
    In time, you will likely come to like this quiet place and want to do this more than once a day. The longer we practice this, the more you’ll be able to go there even in the middle of activities. That’s where you learn that you can still do things while being “in the heart.” But it changes the “feel” of things considerably. They will feel less rushed and pressured. Conversations will slow down and be less anxious. We won’t need to do quite as much (less wasted activity).

    But only think about beginning. Sometimes, these things of the deeper darkness (such as shame) may need to be addressed before there can be much success with the heart. In that case, a knowledgeable spiritual director or even a therapist is important. Somewhere and someone safe where we can risk bringing out toxic events and feelings.

    It’s really hard to say more that this. It’s ground that goes far beyond the reach and competency of the internet.

    If I’ve served a purpose in bringing all this up in my writing, it’s to say to us, “There is much more to your life than the noise of the ego.” We shouldn’t mistake the constant revisions of the ego’s narrative for the truth of our selves. There’s no salvation in it.

  11. Marie says:

    Excellent question kimfrank, I am also especially interested in how we might healthily untangle ourselves from those narratives imposed on us by others, while remaining kind and loving in our response.

  12. Marie says:

    Sorry, didn’t see the response.

  13. Zachary (Lazarus) Lange says:

    Thank you , Father Stephen for these wonderful and transformative teachings! Since Baptism on June 3rd I have felt, finally, the peace of deciding to BE something and somebody, to be an Orthodox Christian. But I also know that I have become a Christian to the extent that an acorn has become an oak tree. I feel wonderful possibilities within my heart, but they are seeds and seeds alone as of yet. I feel that this teaching in this blog post is a revelation of the truly fertile soil of the heart where a seed-form Christianity like mine can sprout. Without the understanding of the ego that you have presented above, we are constantly wasting the water and sunlight and fertilizer God sends to us in the stony ground of the mind. The ego is like St. Peter before his illumination- eager to please and make promises but quick to wither in the heat.

    I was talking to my wife the other night about how dificult it is to communicate. Your teachings here are so timely in that they coincide with Pentecost and God’s correction of the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel. What my wife and I were talking about is the phenomenon of saying something to someone and then having them react in a way that seems totally inappropriate in relation to what was said. We know from their reaction that we were not properly understood. How can we speak to another in love and then see in their response that we have wounded them? Well, as you have said, the ego translates everything that comes through the senses according to the conditioning of the ego. As the words enter the other’s ear they are translated into a DIFFERENT language than we spoke them in. Every ego has its own vernacular. Every ego has its own “empire” to defend. All words are translated by the ego into words that either reinforce the ego’s status or they are perceived as a threat and a battle is initiated in defence. Therefore, is it even possible to communicate with another human being if we have not accessed the heart and speak from its depths? Deep calls unto deep, right? This teaching reveals to me (in my opinion) that very, very little of the talking that goes on in the world is really communication at all. It seems that almost everything said between egos is merely noise…clanging brass and cymbals… Maybe this helps me to understand St. Paul’s writings on Love in Corinthians: “If I give my body to be burned and hath not love, I am but sounding brass and clanging cymbals”. Perhaps an interpretation of that in light of this teaching would be: “If I do not speak from the unobstructed heart, whether in words or deeds, then I am not really saying or doing anything.” Is not love the language of the pure (unobstructed) heart? Therefore anger is the blindness of the heart.

    Thanks again, Father, for the post!

  14. kimfrank says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

  15. Zachary,
    Yes – and yes again. “Love is the language of the unobstructed heart.” Also “the stony ground of the mind.” I was thinking about this on Wednesday evening in my homily on the Tower of Babel but did not quite go there. But you have – thank you.

  16. rivercocytus says:

    Father,

    I suppose this highlights the importance of humiliation? Reading Symeon & Climacus I see a pattern. Symeon even goes so far as to create a complex metaphor about warfare – only to make the point that our plan of attack against our enemies is penitence and sorrow of heart.

    There are also numerous situations in the stories of the monastic fathers in which seeing if a man can bear insult becomes the central point of the story. In fact, if we look at the life of St. Moses the Black, it looks to be in at least a half of the total number of sayings.

    Do you think that maybe humiliation is the key? When first becoming Orthodox I did not really make the connection between humility & humiliation – but now I think it is small wonder that I am not humble if I cannot accept humiliation with dignity.

    Sickness and disability – only because they are bad – become good things in this light.

  17. Rivercocytus,
    Yes I think you are right. The famous story in the Desert Fathers of standing at a grave and hurling insults, or standing and offering praise, to the point that we should be “like the grave,” is one of these examples. The ego’s narrative is bogus.

  18. Michael Bauman says:

    Are you not talking about the difference between worshipping an idol and venerating an icon? Just read your little side blub on opposing iconoclasm. Seems the greatest iconoclasm we face is the effort of our own fallen selfs to destroy the icon we are created to be.

    Am I wrong?

  19. Michael,
    I would agree.

  20. John Sennett says:

    Father, Bless. Thank you for this as it is the perfect (at least in my mind) kick off to begin the Apostles Fast.

  21. rebelsprite says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. A light to guide the way.

  22. Drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    The corny 1920′s poem; could that be the Desiderata? (grin)

    It’s not so corny; actually pretty good for an American amateur philosopher.

  23. Drewster – you nailed it! It became corny because of a 1970′s recording that dripped with syrup. The poem itself is actually good. It’s cultural position became pure kitsch. It’s like Pacabel’s Canon. Good music that has been played too many times and in too many places.

  24. Drewster2000 says:

    Well said. But I bet it could easily come back into vogue now, it’s been long enough. No, it was no prayer of Met. Philaret, but it was still pretty good considering the source.

  25. jenny says:

    “the critic defends herself against the bad feelings by believing herself to be better than others”.

    I find it interesting that “herself” was used here.

  26. fatherstephen says:

    Fr. Meletios writes more inclusively than I do. With occasionally predictable results.

  27. PJ says:

    Is Fr. Meletios in some sort of trouble? I’ve recently read some quite strange accusations concerning goings-on at St. John’s Monastery. I can’t quite piece it all together, however.

  28. PJ says:

    By the way, I do not want to cast aspersions or add to rumor. I’ve just seen such high praise for his work around these parts, so I found the news … peculiar.

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