How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 12
Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 3: What Is the Self?
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The human self is incapable of being defined. Am I a body, am I a certain set of capacities, a certain set of memories? …You are not definable…. You share with the [divine] attribute of keter [crown] this lack of being definable and determinable. Therefore you are always free to transform your life, to be different than you have been up until now. —Rabbi Nathan Glick, The Song of the Ten Sefirot *
The late-nineteenth-century philosopher William James writes that your self is synonymous with your thoughts and beliefs about you and, at the same time, with comparisons of yourself with others gained through social interaction.**
This definition is useful but, in my view, flawed by doubling back on itself where it should move forward. The “comparisons of yourself with others gained through social interaction” are continually influencing “your thoughts and beliefs about you,” and vice versa. So James’s definition becomes, “You are who you think you are.”
But we have already seen the weakness of this definition in Carrie’s experience and in mine.
If you’ve been told all your life that you are stupid, it’s quite likely that you’ll behave unintelligently. You’ll have no confidence in your academic ability. You’ll probably accept uncritically what you’re told by people in authority—teachers, for example—and you won’t ask the questions that occur to you, believing them to be stupid questions. People who observe your intellectual clumsiness will also think you’re stupid, reinforcing your low opinion of yourself. From your perspective, these people will seem much smarter than you.
So one day you take an intelligence test and your IQ turns out to be 149, much higher than any of your fellow students’ IQ. The administrators and teachers at your school are sure there’s been a mistake. They give you other kinds of intelligence tests. On each of them your score indicates that you are a near-genius.
Several outcomes are possible here:
The teachers and administrators are finally convinced of what you yourself have come to believe after the first few tests: You are indeed very bright. You will begin to exhibit your mental strength, in response both to your new understanding of yourself and to your elders’ and the other students’ new respect for your intelligence.
The teachers and administrators will remain unconvinced, and everyone will continue to treat you as if you are stupid, but you will believe. In your certainty that you are truly smart, you will behave intelligently, your grades will improve, and you will win over the school personnel, unless they are exceedingly stubborn or unless someone is paying them a lot of money to make you appear stupid to yourself and others, probably because you have a secret trust fund worth billions in your name and your guardians want you to be declared incompetent by the courts. Or something.
The teachers and administrators will remain unconvinced, but you will believe—initially. You have not thoroughly tested your newly recognized intelligence and, because everybody continues to treat you as they always have—as if you had the mental agility of dryer lint—they will eventually wear you down, things will return to “normal,” and your ephemeral moment of brilliance will fade and be forgotten, much as in the wonderful 1990 Robert DeNiro–Robin Williams film Awakenings (directed by Penny Marshall), based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks (Williams) and his experiments with the drug L-dopa. Sacks used L-dopa successfully to “awaken” a group of catatonic patients, some of whom had been virtually unconscious for decades. If you have seen the movie (and if you haven’t, skip to the next paragraph), you will recall the heartbreaking outcome: L-dopa was tragically unable to fulfill its early promise, and the awakened patients had to watch themselves and each other slide back into oblivion.
But for you, the student victimized by everyone’s persistent certainty that you are stupid, the story is not over. As we have seen, the self will protest, and you will either reassert yourself or become physically or mentally ill, or both.
You are always more than you think you are
Almost all who serve in the U.S. military start out in boot camp and usually find their physical capacity to be greater than they thought possible. Indeed, when circumstances force you to stretch beyond your comfort level, there is almost always a euphoric moment when your self-image grows along with your ability to meet the new demands.
We have all heard it said that people generally operate at about five percent of their potential, or some variation on that idea. I once attended a meeting at which a seminar-leader opened by having everybody take a partner and examine the partner’s appearance. Then he told us to turn around, change five clearly visible things about our appearance, and turn back to our partner. Each of us was supposed to discern the five things that our partner had changed. People did things like move their watches from one arm to the other, roll up their sleeves, loosen their ties, and ruffle their hair.
Then he had us do it again. And again. And a fourth time. The exercise got pretty silly, but people devised, on the spot, ingenious ways to change their appearance. They rolled their socks down, turned their skirts around, used lipstick to make “freckles,” wiped off their eye makeup, placed their socks on their heads, spilled coffee on themselves, blackened their teeth with mascara, and put Kleenex in their ears, straws in their noses, and forks in their shirt pockets.
It was a great way to begin a seminar. Everyone’s creative juices were flowing, they were in high good humor, and they were a mess, so nobody cared what he or she looked like. Most important, they recognized capacities within themselves that they hadn’t been aware of.
At this point we might tentatively say that you are who you think you are, plus the projected parts of yourself not reclaimed, plus your unthought-of potential, which is infinite….
* Rabbi Glick is a scholar and teacher of Kabbalah in Israel. The Song of the Ten Sefirot is an audiobook available free from LearnOutLoud.com.
** Aronson, E., Wilson, T. & Akert, R., Social Psychology (6th edition) 2005
Photo, “Basic Training,” courtesy of http://www.list.co.uk/article/4084-basic-training/