I enjoy writing character-driven novels, because I get to explore the mystery of Self. I suspect that’s also one reason people enjoy reading novels. We recognize and identify with human emotions – and in good stories, we even feel them ourselves – as characters experience different situations and face conflicting moral choices. In character-driven novels, protagonists enter the story masked, figuratively speaking. They hide secrets or desires or grudges or flaws from other characters and sometimes even from themselves. It’s the events of the story that force characters to confront their own masks and challenge them to become better – more courageous, wiser, more compassionate. In the end, protagonists either drop their masks and mature (hopeful ending) or cling to their masks and don’t mature (depressing ending).
Real life is much the same only messier and more random. We’re the main characters in our own stories, masking ourselves from others – or from ourselves. But it’s one thing to spin an image of ourselves to present to others, and it’s another thing to buy into our own spin. “Above all, don’t lie to yourself,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him, and so loses respect for himself. And having no respect, he ceases to love.”
Emotionally healthy people are honest with themselves and, while they may not be satisfied with everything they see of themselves, they seem to have made themselves at home in their own hearts. They accept and take care of Self, which is both a preventive and an incentive. On the preventive side, accepting and caring for Self keeps their souls from shriveling. On the incentive side, it offers the space for the soul to bloom. Like a flower blossom that both receives (sunlight and water) and gives (fragrance, beauty, pollen, seeds), a soul in bloom also receives and gives; it’s in balance. The truth is we’re rarely in perfect balance, since our lives are always being pushed and pulled in so many different directions, but the process of working toward balance is what makes the soul healthy. It’s the human story. It’s life itself. Balancing, unbalancing, rebalancing – this is our coming-of-age story, our life journey.
The individual self on an individual journey may sound lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. We all have traveling companions along the way, and since “in God we live and move and have our being,” we’re never truly alone. The divine I AM surrounds us every step of the way. Still, your life is your journey, your path, your story, just as my life is mine. I am my constant companion. I go to sleep and dream only my dreams. I wake up with my self. It’s me in the mirror with bed-head in the morning. It’s me answering yes or no or maybe. You do the same in your space in the company of God as you understand God to be.
We’re also accompanied by all sorts of outside voices. When we’re young, we depend on those voices for direction. Of course, that leads to all kinds of blind beliefs. Those blind beliefs are necessary when we’re young. And just because we hold them without questioning, that doesn’t mean they are false. Many are true but not yet personalized, not yet questioned and confirmed as our own. But true or false, they’re the handbook we carry with us as we set out on our life journey.
As we grow older, we seek advice from this handbook. But since our journey is unique and unmapped, we may discover that some of those blind beliefs don’t hold true. One belief that I started out carrying in my handbook was that my Self deserves nothing. We used to sing an old hymn that marveled that God would extend grace to “such a worm as I.” The belief is that no human being is worthy of being loved. No one deserves anything. Every breath we take is undeserved; every bite we eat is undeserved; shelter, clothing, health . . . all undeserved. It’s a belief I jettisoned. I’m not a worm. Even if I were, worms are valuable and have an important place on this earth. So I do too. (Choral theology is some of the weakest yet some of the easiest to absorb and carry with us.) Loving kindness says that simply because we are human beings, we deserve to be respected and honored, treated with dignity and grace.
Leaving blind beliefs behind, we move on with eyes open and ears tuned for other voices that offer hope and direction. We look for examples of how to move ahead, how to be our best selves, perhaps how to interpret the handbook. There’s plenty of advice to be had, and it’s easily available these days. It’s also often contradictory. It can be hard to decide whose voice to listen to. Ultimately we have to choose for ourselves who to believe, whose advice to take and whose to discard.
From where I stand in my life journey, I can look back and see that I am, at the deepest levels of self, good and valuable and worthy. But I’ve discovered that making peace with my Self, becoming friends with my Self, and honoring my Self is not a one-time event. It’s a process. And in the end, it is my process. No one else gets to define me, nor do I have to mirror any of the number of people that I admire. I don’t need their admiration or validation. I am not a Moses or a Joshua or a Zusia. I am me, and I am enough. You are too.
I hope that you, like me, are growing in your ability to enjoy your Self as your own faithful traveling companion.
I’ll join you again next week in another post. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey.
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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy morguefile.com.
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