3. Does The Self Actually Matter?

It’s been pointed out by commenters on my blog, as well as in certain religions and philosophies, that the “self” doesn’t really matter. In fact, it gets in the way of being the best person you can.

“The foolish man conceives the idea of ‘self.'” says the Buddha. “The wise man sees there is no ground on which to build the idea of ‘self;’ thus, he has a right conception of the world and well concludes that all compounds amassed by sorrow will be dissolved again, but the truth will remain.”

“And [Jesus] said to [them] all, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

The self is considered a form of over-inflated ego, in the world I long inhabited. It’s considered a collection of beliefs we have about ourselves that keep us from living a life of sacrifice and purpose. And according many of my teachers along the way, the most important goal in life is to do away with a Sense-Of-Self, to “die to yourself”, and even to embrace the whole of life as either an illusion or a chance to prove your worth in hopes of future reward.

That’s the tradition I was raised in — to forget your Self and sacrifice your own selfish needs for others was the highest aim of life. Individual Sense-Of-Self was unimportant. A sense of the larger community was what mattered. The most important thing a person could do, was give up the Self for the benefit of others. To avoid selfishness at all costs, was the sign of true maturity and development. Who you were, who you expected to be from one day to the next, was of no consequence. What you wanted, what you desired, with all your petty peeves and preferences… well, that all just got in the way of what you were truly meant to do with your life — which was serve the larger whole.

I believed that for many, many years. And in some ways, I think it may have made it easier for me to tolerate the losses of Self I experienced over the course of my life, thanks to numerous mild TBIs. I started experiencing consciousness-altering blows to the head when my age was in the single-digits, and to this day I can recall what it was like afterwards, to be so confused and baffled by things I said and did that — even at a young age — didn’t “seem like me”. The recollection of being so unaccountably angry when I knew that I wasn’t being sensible… teasing other kids with mean-spirited taunts, while inside my own head I was telling myself to STOP! but could not… being off-balance and woozy for long periods of time, unable to play with my new friends at a new school because something in me knew I got hurt when we were playing the day before, and if I joined them again, I might get hurt again… having my grades sink like a rock, when I was always a straight-A student before…

Even as a young kid, I keenly felt the loss of those little pieces of my predictable identity. It was like knife through me… a wide, heavy, wet wool blanket lowered over my head, slowing me down and impossible to get out from under. I knew I was not the person I was appearing to be. I knew I was better than that. More capable. More willing. But there didn’t seem a way for my goodness, capability, and willingness to get out from under that blanket of confusion and rage.

Over and over again, it happened. When I was seven… eight… ten… thirteen… fifteen… sixteen… sixteen-and-a-half. There were probably even more times along the way when I was hurt, but I cannot recall. Nobody thought much about concussion, when I was growing up. Nobody thought getting clunked on the head and being woozy or sick or confused actually mattered.

What did matter, in the world I grew up in, was forgetting the self — “self” with a small “s”. It was less important, than the collective good. Your own wishes took second place to what the community needed. I was raised by parents who’d grown up in a rural area with farming as a main source of livelihood. On the farm and in the gardens, what you wanted for yourself had to come second to what the group needed. You didn’t get to pick and choose when you would do certain things. Everything was dictated by the seasons and what needed to be done. You make hay when the sun shines. You get up before sunrise to milk the cows. You plant and weed and harvest, not when you choose to, yourself, but when circumstances demand it. And the last thing that helps you in all of this, is a dominant sense of what your Self wants, what it needs, or even who that Self is.

Training myself to forget my Self was an important part of my upbringing. It made it possible for me to do the things I did not want to do — chores, planting, weeding, harvesting, putting up food for the rest of the year. Up to my elbows in steaming hot vegetables, getting the corn off the cobs or the peas and beans out of their shells or snapping the stems off the ends of green beans, it didn’t make any difference what I mySelf wanted. It was all about the work. All about meeting the needs of the group, and putting your responsibilities first. Those who placed a premium on their own Self were a liability to the group, and everyone did their part to show them the error of their ways — either directly with discipline, or indirectly with shaming and ostracism. Many a Sunday, the sermon was about “dying to self.” It wasn’t just a nice thought. For the world I grew up in, it ensured a way of life.

Getting rid of my Self was also a form of self-protection. It was a way for me to make peace with the changes I could not explain within myself. It was also a way to avoid dealing with the troubling behaviors, the strange ideas, the distractions, the temper outbursts, the depression. If only I could stop relying on a Sense-Of-Self to point me in the right direction, I’d finally get on the proper path. If only I could escape that combination of experiences I named “mySelf”, I would be free.

But of course it never worked. And ignoring my own individual identity and Sense of who that was, led me to do things and make choices that put me in even more danger — and that danger also led to still more TBIs. I remember so clearly the determination I felt to put aside my bad feelings about an employer I worked for, for a little while. I didn’t agree with their line of business or their industry practices, but I pushed myself to go to work for them each day, in a location some distance from my home. The stress of the internal conflict took a lot of energy to deal with, and the long commute tired me out. One morning on my way to work, as I pulled out from a stop sign at a blind corner, I was t-boned by a speeding driver who was running late for an appointment. He rammed right into the driver’s side of my car, rattling me and making my car undriveable. The impact took its toll — I could not think clearly, and I could not understand what people were saying to me. It was too much for me to take, after a few days, so one day I just didn’t go to work. I stayed home and drank all day, much to the dismay of my roommate.

Here, I had been intent on doing the right thing and putting my own selfish needs aside, and it cost me.

After a couple of years, I managed to get back on my feet and managed to find a job that suited me better and was aligned with my values. Again, though, I tended to push myself too hard for the sake of keeping up, and one Friday after a long week at work, I was on my way to the train station to pick up a friend who was coming to visit for the weekend. I was late, and traffic was heavy, but I knew I had to push on — just put myself, my frustration, my fatigue, and my own wishes aside, and reach the train station in time to meet them. In stop-and-go traffic, I was rear-ended. There wasn’t much damage to the car, but again, I was rattled. I didn’t stop to see if I was okay. I checked the back end of my car and the front end of the driver who hit me, then we parted ways without exchanging information. I thought I was fine. The car certainly was. But I was not. I pushed myself to get to the train station (so they wouldn’t have to wait), putting my visitor’s schedule ahead of my own welfare,. I paid for that, too. I was confused again, addled, unable to follow conversations, and very manic. My family looked at me like there was something wrong, but I ignored them and kept on with my life, pushing myself to meet my obligations and responsibilities. Pushing myself to forget my Self. Deliberately ignoring the confused Sense-Of-Self that felt unaccountably confused… unsettled for reasons it could not fathom.

Many times over, I have been injured because I pushed myself to forget my Self. I only wanted to get away from that burden of “ego” I carried around with me. I only wanted to be free of the confusion, the frustration, the disappointment, the distraction. I longed to be released from the pain of my existence — not through suicide, but through “dying to myself”, day after day. “Train up a child in they way they should go,” says the Bible verse, “And when they are grown, they shall not depart from it.” That way of denying my Self, and fleeing from my Sense-Of-Self, was still very much with me. I had not departed from it.

And in the process of denying the fact of my Self, I have caused a great number of people a great deal of pain. There were so many destructive relationships that never would have commenced, had I listened to my Self and avoided getting involved with those people. I caused so much harm to others, because of poor choices that were more about what seemed to be the right thing to do, than what my gut was telling me. For so many years, I made choices and did things that were entirely out of character for me, because I feared that shifting Self, and I avoided listening to the still small voice that my Sense-Of-Self used to point me in the right direction. In many ways, I actually had good judgment. But I was so mistrustful of my Sense-Of-Self which drew on that, that I ignored it — and did what others recommended against my better judgment.

I thought that denying my Self and not relying on my Sense-Of-Self would save me.

But it just got me hot water. Again, and again, and again.

It’s taken me years to see that the Self is not my enemy. And it’s taken me almost as long to realize that a solid Sense-Of-Self is the one thing that can keep me on firm footing. What I’ve gradually come to realize, is that Self is more than the greedy ego. It is more than a collection of bad behaviors and peevish needs that nag at the soul, day in and day out. There is more to Self than negative qualities and needy drives to quench insatiable desires. And far from being a barrier to living a fulfilling, purposeful life, our Self — and especially our Sense-Of-Self — is what makes it possible for us to function as complete, independent human beings in a healthy, interdependent community. It’s not what separates us from meaning, purpose, and connections with others — it’s the very thing that makes it possible.

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