Who am I, really?
Am I the calm and quiet person I like to think of myself as, or am I person who is easily moved to anger when someone pushes the right buttons? A recent incident precipitated this rush of self-examination. Do we ever really know ourselves?
We hold in our minds a sort of self-image, a profile of ourselves. Without it, we probably coundn’t live our lives. When we are faced with decisions, we refer back to this self-image, and to a large degree, it helps determine the decisions we make. You know the old adage: If you tell a child often enough that he is naughty, he will come to believe it, and behave accordingly”. And of course, the reverse is also true. I have seen both sides of this adage in action in real life. I have seen naughty children become angels because someone believed in their goodness, and good children become terrors because someone kept getting them into trouble.
But as adults, are we masters of our own self-image? How much responsibility for it do we bear, and how much is borne by those we meet throughout our lives, especially those who are in a position to affect us strongly?
We take this impact of others for granted in many of the things we say. We speak of a saint such as St Mark who began the conversion of Egypt to Christianity 2,000 years ago. His impact on those first Egyptian Christians was nothing less than life-changing, indeed, nation-changing! Today, we accept immediately and without question that a powerful preacher or author can change the minds and lives of millions.
And yet, can anyone really change your self-image without your consent? In children, I can certainly accept that this happens, for the child is not yet mature enough to choose for him/herself what inputs to accept and to reject. The child to a great extent trusts the judgement of the adults in her life, takes their words and comments at face value, cannot analyse them very deeply, nor assess their validity. Tell a child they are cute, and they’ll beam with happiness, event hey are the most unattractive child ever to be born. Tell a child that they have been naughty, and watch the face drop, even if they have not done anything wrong.
But the grown up should be different. The grown up is required to bear their own responsibility for who they are. They are to be mature enough to filter the truth from the untruth, and thus form a self-image that is valid. And yet, we so often get it wrong…
I find myself unwilling to incorporate feedback that I don’t like from people into my self-image. Yet I jump at the chance when they say nice things about me. And then, an incident like the breaking through of anger suddenly crashes me back to earth once more. My self-image turns out to have been false, even though I had trusted it, and built my behaviour around it. There are little nasties lurking around in the dark corners of my soul that I seem to have conveniently forgotten about. My self-image needs revision, if it is to be accurate … and my self itself needs repentance, if it is to be acceptable. Which should I tackle first?
Perhaps the self-image has to be corrected first, brought back into line with reality. If I don’t know the little nasties inside me, how can I do anything about them? What if I don’t like the self-image I find, when I brush away the deception? Well, that’s when the real work begins…