Reaching for our selves

Hi all. I’ve been trying to write a post to follow up on the self-narrative post I put up last. I’ve found that a certain paradox stands in my way. The pull toward a coherent self-narrative is so strong. Partly because, from the outside, we look like a single person. And where do we learn how to see ourselves? From the outside. From the perspective of others. From our parents and caregivers, while growing up, starting in earliest infancy. Oh, isn’t he cute! (Not aren’t they cute!) These others who love me, they see me as a single person. So that must be what I am. Also, we feel like unified beings in the sense that we have one body. Just one. When any part of me is in pain, it’s my pain. It belongs to a unitary me. When I die, it’s all of me that dies.

Picasso –self-portrait across the lifespan

Yet the reality looks different from inside. There’s so much going on in “me”. Last post I observed that there seem to be multiple self-narratives. This is especially obvious, and maybe especially extreme, in addiction. The classic version is “the addict self” versus “the good self” or “caring self” or…what have you. When I was an addict, it was pretty straightforward. I was a good student by day, then I’d become Robin Hood when it got dark, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor — i.e., me! Each part had its own history, its own motives, and its own — highly contradictory — goals.

Should we think of these as incompatible self-narratives, and view each as separate, with a sort of life of its own, yet worthy of acceptance and compassion? Should we stop trying so hard to unify them? Because sometimes…you just can’t. They simply don’t fit. And the effort to weld them together can be overwhelming, soul-destroying, can leave us feeling more fragmented than we already were. The infamous “dry drunk” is one victim of this misguided struggle.

That’s what I suggested last post…along with an “uber-self” who’s pretty hard to define. Yet I’m not sure it’s right. Maybe we have just one, or just one main, self-narrative — this is who I am, this is who I was, this is who I want to become.

Or who I expect to become — a very different way to frame a future self!

Maybe the project is indeed (as the psychologists and philosophers claim) to make that self-narrative coherent. Maybe that’s the job. It’s just that there are aspects of the self, parts of the self, that don’t fit. Wanting to get high, choosing to get high, being determined, being defiant about getting high. (Even in the world of “normies,” there are parts that don’t fit the narrative.) Maybe it’s best so see these as strands of the self-story that truly aren’t compatible with the rest. Maybe they are “clips” (when we actually bother to see them at all), but not self-stories per se. In fact, maybe their incompleteness reflects this. Maybe those strands are “doomed” to remain incomplete.

(By the way, if you doubt the diversity of self-images, cover one half of the face above, then cover the other half. Did you see the same person? Think about the two halves of your brain — they process things very differently.)


Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this and trying to come up with something like a resolution. (I’ve always liked to create theories or models, but they have to be — guess what? — coherent.) I’ll let you know if I get any closer.

Meanwhile, Isabel sent me this powerful and beautiful poem, so I (we) want to share it with you. It seems to show that desire, in reaching too far for completion, finds that which cannot cohere.

Letting the Emptiness Become My Government

Within me, the sipped, iced bourbon enacts
the sense of a slow, April rain
blurring and nurturing a landscape.
Decades I’ve been pipe-dreaming of finding
a life as concise as a wartime telegram.
Ultimately, I’ve ended up compiling
an archive of miscommunication
and the faded receipts of secondary disgraces.
In third grade, a friend’s uncle stole the two dollars
from my pocket as I slept on their couch,
and later he must’ve hurried into the night
toward a flat in the nearby building
where a newly minted narcotic promised
to evict the misgivings from all riled souls.
I told no one of the theft, letting the emptiness
become my government, my friend’s
mother counting her food stamps while we walked
the late-morning blocks to a bustling grocery,
within which she eventually smacked
the hopeful face of my friend as he reached
again for too costly a thing.

  by Marcus Jackson


8 thoughts on “Reaching for our selves

  1. F.A.K.Nasser April 2, 2019 at 8:44 am #

    I like this candid post , it is very hard to unite all aspects in oneself
    in an attempt to make it coherent. I like the honest poem
    by Marcus Jackson it reflects the then naked reality. I was moved by an essay in the
    New Yorker , I really want you to read carefully the following
    Hope you send us your opinion!

  2. Annette Stewart April 2, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

    Thank you, Marc, for a questioning and evocative post and I loved the poem! I can’t describe myself as whole, because how does that allow space for consciousness beyond the bounds of my brain? But I do describe myself as healing: healing from my expectations and others’. When I can stop the judgment, which is tough, because it’s all around me and embodied in our cuIture, I like to see myself as a constellation, because only Nature really is home and enables me to see ME with any clarity. My planets shine at different times, each one an expression of my persona, held by space/time in my Milky Way. I meet others in their own space/time, knowing it’s likely that they will be somewhat different when I next see them – scary and comforting. Nothing is really fixed, is it?

    The Milky Way always knows its way home, and is deeper and wiser than any manmade substance: sugar, drugs, booze, porn, shopping, gambling and short-term pleasures.

    Mindfulness enables me to tap into the way home these days.

  3. Daniel April 2, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    So reassuring to myself that creating the ultimate coherent self-narrative from the multiples of self-narratives eludes us all, even you, Marc. Thanks for your words of guidance.

  4. Eric Nada April 3, 2019 at 11:36 am #

    Marc, love this candid piece. One of my favorite quotations is by Albert Einstein, “The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.” I think that this quotation speaks to both general emotional health as well as addiction recovery (which in the long-run is also about general emotional health, I think). I like it because there is such a tendency to see the idea of “self” as the part of us that if adhered to and believed in, will bring us happiness. And there is certainly a level at which this is true, and developing a coherent view of “self” is so important at that level. I also think that satisfying the urge to develop a coherent sense of “self” makes it easier to see past it, eventually. Owning the idea of “self” makes it easier to put the idea of “self” in its place, so to speak. In a way that we can own it without being owned by it, that it can serve us without us serving it. And this fits into my own struggle with addictions directly because what I was really attempting to do was bring myself a feeling of transcendence through my additions. Not so much a transcendence from the the self but a transcendence from the tyranny of the self narrative. Without being aware of it I was trying to live forever lifted from my own painful humanity–but being human this was obviously impossible. I’d better stop now before I get too out there (or is it way too late).

  5. Karen April 3, 2019 at 9:56 pm #

    This concept is super interesting to me.

    Maybe we are like a tree. We have the roots and main trunk with various branches. As a narrative no longer works, we divert resources to the other limbs or even end up sawing off the limb completely. When we saw off a limb, as it was a part of the tree, it has left its mark, but with it gone we get to send nutrients to other limbs…
    That said, if a branch is sawed off, this does not mean one can pop up on another part of a tree.
    I feel like I could go deep with this analogy.

  6. jorgekafkazar April 6, 2019 at 12:20 am #

    Good to see a recovery blog that is still functioning. Thanks for keeping the ball rolling.

  7. Shelagh April 8, 2019 at 3:16 pm #

    Coherence, congruence. A narrative. I want it. My life experience connects in ways that is not that. I don’t quite fit. I have never met someone who fitted. What is lost and what is found? The desire to find the answer is the problem.The desire to find a resolution. What if we said there isn’t a solution. What if we asked what is at stake if we don’t find a resolution. What then?

  8. John Runnion April 18, 2019 at 8:28 am #

    What i find interesting is the rather unexamined cultural emphasis on the existence of a “self,” “true self” and or “authentic self.” Does this exacerbate the phenomenon of “self-loathing” that surprised the Dalai Lama so much? Buddha seemed to suggest the issue is more or less perceptual and de-emphasized “self” and “non-self.” How would this change the psychological approach to self-narrative and the Western insistence of cohesiveness?

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