Self-Awareness and Understanding

Presented by the Rev. Ann Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Tad Meyer, husband and wife priests of the
Episcopal Church

In this series of Forums, we are going to be exploring the fascinating realm of intimacy through a spiritual perspective. This morning’s topic is self-awareness and understanding but before we delve into such matters I want to go over the paradigm for the human personality that I introduced last week, thinking more deeply about certain aspects of it. Last Sunday I spoke about a model of the human psyche that I first encountered in a book the Art of Intimacy written by two psychiatrists, a father and son named Thomas and Patrick Malone. In that book, they spoke of a tripartite psyche based on the old childhood retort of me, myself and I. In the most basic terms, the “I” is the subject of the personality, the part of us that is defined by what we have done, what we have planned, implemented and acted upon. Here we see and present ourselves through the lens of what we have accomplished: our educational and professional accomplishments, our familial and material achievements, our personal or ethical triumphs. The “me” is that part of ourselves that is the object rather than the subject; that part that was formed and shaped not by what we have accomplished but by what has happened to us over the course of our lives, those things that we did not instigate but experienced. It is not the story of what we have done but rather the tale of when we have been done to. And finally there is the third realm of “self”, the reflective part of the personality buried beneath and within the subject and object. Here is a dark and opaque realm where our deepest fears and greatest desires reside. Here is the font of joy, not happiness; despair, not disappointment. Here is the source of our most profound and most complex motivations, our darkest secrets and our most treasured hopes. This morning I want to spend a few minutes exploring the interrelationship of these psychic realms.

In their work, the Malones suggest that the “me” is the vessel and vehicle of character whereas the “I” is the ground and foundation of our personality. When we think of someone’s character we are usually referring to the values and principles that frame their beliefs – either good or bad. “He was a bad character” – usually connotes that there was something deficient or wrong-headed about the person’s values or ideals. In a more positive vein, the Malones write:

The “me” sits in the bottom well of a person and steadfastly wills that person toward those broad behaviors that will meet some very basic emotional needs, such as feeling accepted, being loved, or feeling worthwhile. These needs are usually few in number and arise out of our biological needs, as modified by our earliest and most primitive experiences. (page 43)

Whereas the “I” looks outward, the “me” is focused on the internal landscape of our emotional and psychological needs which were created by our past experiences and formative relationships. As the font of “character”, the “me” decides what should or has to be done while the “I”, the personality, determines when and how to do it. Character is indeed more of an internal affair, focused on how we perceive ourselves and having little to do with acting in the world around us. Personality is the outward expression of character, engaging and relating to the reality that surrounds us.

Another way to consider the relationship between these two dimensions is to think in terms of space – mental or psychic space. Basically, we have two types of mental space: personal and shared. Personal space is where we focus on internal, inward matters whereas shared space is where we encounter and engage other persons, their ideas, personalities and characters. Personal space is, of course, the natural realm for “me” where it can nurture its sense of character through contemplation, introspection, self-reflection and recreation. Shared space is the bailiwick of the “I”, an environment of engagement, experiencing others through conversation, commitment and complimentary actions. A healthy individual moves easily between these spaces, finding time and energy for both. A psychotic, on the other hand, lives solely in personal space, retreating from all “I” activity while a neurotic is often living primarily in shared space where they are constantly and often obsessively focused on the opinions, needs and judgments of others. We all need to find ways to navigate these spatial waters but often it is not nearly as easy as it looks.

Let’s say, for example, that I wake up one morning to a day that is completely free of obligations and duties and as I lie in bed contemplating that fact, I immediately begin to think of ways to make this time a haven of personal space. I decide that what I can really use is an afternoon at Corkscrew Swamp walking quietly through that lush landscape, open to any sights and sounds particularly those of an avian variety. As the morning evolves, however, Ann suggests that we go to a movie – see if we can’t check out another of the Oscar nominees. I tell her about my plans and after some very reasonable discussion we decide that I should go to Corkscrew and she should take in La La Land. When I get to the Swamp, however, fully prepared for recreation and refreshment in my personal space, I have trouble enjoying it because all I can think about is Ann and how I may have disappointed her. Now please note, this has nothing to do with Ann who in truth was probably perfectly happy with the solution. It has to do with me staying in a shared space where my own concerns for the “other” outweigh and spoil my own experience of personal time. To make matters a bit more complicated, let’s say I decide instead to sacrifice my plan and go with Ann to the movie. In all probability although I would then be in a shared space, close to the one I love, I would probably spend most of the time fuming about my loss of personal space and time in the Swamp.

Now, believe it or not, we are ready to talk about the self, that part of the psychic triad that is so illusive and difficult to describe or define. Shared space puts us close to others, placing us in juxtaposition but it does not necessarily lead to intimacy. Intimacy occurs when through closeness we are able to place the “I” and the “me” together which gives birth to the “self” – the pathway to the soul. The self emerges when we are able to bring our personal space into a shared space, when we are able to share with another our personal sphere, our heartfelt character and when we are able to do that – the self appears. As I mentioned last week, the great irony is that our search for and discovery of our intima – our true and deepest selves – can only happen when we are in relation to another through the bonds of intimacy. The way out of the personal/shared space dilemma that I described would be for me to find a way to bring my personal space – my “me” into my shared space – my “I” with Ann. I could, for example, have gone to the Swamp and relished my personal space and then shared with Ann that evening all the external and internal wanderings that marked my “me” journey or I could have gone to the movie with Ann and shared that experience with her and then sought to discover ways to “personalize” that experience seeing what it could teach me about my own character and sharing those insights with Ann. A well-balanced person is aware of their need for personal and shared space and when the “I” and “me” are each given their due respect and deference they can nurture and feed each other. As I mentioned last week, when people are asked about their intimate relationships and how they feel about them, they often say that when they are with that person, they feel they can just be themselves. When we are being “me” in the shared space of “I”; when our character becomes the platform of our personality; when we experience our personal space in the midst of shared space; when we are intimate with the “other” – then the self emerges and we become self-aware.

As I suggested, the shared space of the “I” brings us in proximity to others and that can make us feel closeness – a feeling of shared space, shared concern or shared value. Such closeness can lead to intimacy and self-awareness but it will not necessarily do so. Closeness is not intimacy and unfortunately many relationships don’t realize or recognize the difference. The other day I was having breakfast with a friend who told me a rather astonishing story. It concerned a friend of his who had recently spoken to him about his near-death experience in the hospital, an experience which had deeply and profoundly changed him – as such experiences inevitably do. What struck me about the incident, however, was not the near-death experience itself but what came afterwards. The man had been married for a very long time to his high-school sweetheart and they had built a life together. After his experience, the man asked his wife if she wanted to hear about it and she refused and has continued to do so. My friend was not necessarily surprised by this, assuming that she had her reasons, probably rooted in her own fears or beliefs. Obviously, I was and am in no position to judge or even understand her motivation. What did strike me, was the fact that here was a person who was enormously “close” to another having shared all sorts of space with him for literally decades and yet she could not in this instance move from closeness to intimacy – she refused to enter into his personal space, to engage his “self” even though that “self” had unquestionably just experienced a dramatic and fundamental change. Close proximity, no matter, how long and lasting the experience, will not necessarily lead to intimacy. To enter into the realm of intimacy requires self-awareness, an intentional desire to expose, engage and experience our personal space in a shared context.

One of the most important ways that we move toward such self-awareness is through understanding. The first definition of understanding in the dictionary refers to it as a mental process that leads to comprehension. In the context of these talks, understanding is the mental process that leads us to comprehend our need for self-awareness and intimacy. Understanding in this case is not so much a state of knowledge or comprehension as it is a motivation to explore the realm of intimacy. As I mentioned last week, we are creatures of enormous pretension, constantly creating persona based on our often distorted perceptions of who we think we are or who we want to be. I am not saying this judgmentally but simply descriptively. As far as I am concerned it is human nature to use our imaginations to construct images of ourselves and of reality that conform to our internal expectations. Heaven knows, the power and prevalence of this human attribute is painfully apparent in the current political environment. Present the same set of facts to a Republican and a Democrat and then watch how they use their imaginations to interpret those facts in a way that conforms to their political and ideological pretensions.

What is dangerous about these pretensions is when we project them onto others believing that all human beings think, feel and experience reality in the same way that we do. I recently read an article written by a couple who tragically lost a daughter in an accident and then a second daughter experienced a tragic bike accident that terribly disfigured her face. The parents spoke about what people should do for people who are experiencing such loss and grief and they included a list of things not to say. A couple of those admonitions addressed the same problem from slightly different angles. Basically, they said don’t say anything that suggests that you understand their pain because of some similar experience. In other words, don’t pretentiously project your experience on theirs somehow believing that they feel and think just like you. Such a response unintentionally devalues and diminishes the uniqueness of their experience. On a less traumatic level of experience, we are constantly doing exactly that to others – comparing our experience to theirs - believing that they think, feel and process reality in the same way that we do. In “close” relationships – friendships and marriages – this mind-set can prove to be enormously destructive.

True understanding is the antidote to such projections. To understand is to acknowledge and accept that the person you are so close to does not think, feel or experience reality like you but is their own unique and different self. It is to shatter our projections and to be open to the complete “otherness” of another human being. It is to open the door to intimacy, recognizing that their personal space is not an extension of ours and that when you experience it within the confines of shared space you are on holy ground which demands no less than your complete openness and deep respect. To understand and respect the uniqueness and autonomy of another human being is to prepare the ground for the experience of intimacy and the emergence of self-awareness.

Wendel W. Meyer