The Sticky Self and the Reflected Self

Earlier I wrote about identity and the self. If we imagine the self to be a house, then identity is the space and the medium through which we see the house, the walls that can be painted, the front and back yards where things can be placed or removed, where there are private and public spaces within the boundaries of the property. Identity is how that self is seen, how that self is located by others and by itself. In our language we sometimes use identity and the self as interchangable. Sometimes we see them as distinct. Some items of our identity are like items on the lawn that can be moved or re-arranged. Some items seems to be more like paint on the house, something so tightly bonded to the self that we can’t help but see them together.

Human selves are sticky selves. It is as if we are covered with glue, or velcro, or tar. As we go through life all kinds of things stick to us and become aspects of our selves.

Another helpful imagine I think for our selves is a body of mass in space. A body of mass in space by gravity attracts other things to itself. Think about the earth floating through space. The earth attracts to itself all kinds of space debris that get caught in its gravitational field. Some of these things plunge down to earth, make a crater, and themselves become part of the earth. Other things don’t fall but rather stay in orbit around the earth like the moon. Other things are launched from the earth and travel to distant places or stay in orbit around the earth, like satellites.

The self is sticky, like a hairy little dog that walks through the field picking up burrs, ticks, dry leaves. It stops to nibble on bugs and other things left in the grass. It accumulates items as it travels. Some of these things will remain with it for a time, other things will become a more permanent part of it.

The self is like a body with gravity that attracts other things to itself.

Most of what the self collects is not physical, but relational and social. We don’t collect these things so much through touch, but we collect them through sight and relationship. We encounter “things” around us many which are not physical at all, and we take them in, making them part of our location and appearance, or even more deeply part of our very selves. These things begin to define us as we often define them. As these things are imprinting upon us, we are labeling them as good, desirable, attractive, evil, objectionable, hated, taboo, and sometimes important, or indifferent. The self is deeply connected to its environment. We might argue there is no such thing as a human self apart from its environment.

How do we collect these things? Through reflection.

The Reflected Self

A thought that changed my life was in David Schnarch’s book “Intimacy and Desire” where he observed that our first self is a reflected self.

Normal people depend on others for their sense of identity, self-worth, and security. We do so because we are generally at a common modest level of personal development. A reflected self is the first self we have. Many people never develop much of a solid self and engage in borrowed functioning all their lives.

Schnarch, David (2011-07-01). Intimacy & Desire (p. 46). Beaufort Books. Kindle Edition.

We’ll get into a lot more of this later on but for now I want us to reflect on this idea of our first self, our sticky self, the process by which we develop a self is through the vehicle of reflection. This is not to say that we don’t through our genetics bring something into the relationship, we certainly do. Our genetics create the eyes to see and the initial structure we’ll use to do all of this mirroring and reflecting. Even the reflecting of past generations may be inherited by us through our epigenetics. The development of a self is a unique interaction of the creature we are, received by the union of sperm and egg with the genetics, epigenetics and the interactions prior to birth, with all that follows.

As I said before our selves don’t need to come into physical contact to attach to other things in our universe, like gravity they just need to come into relational contact. We’ll get into the question of physicality and ontology later, but what we’ll see here is that relationship although not a thing that can be studied like the gravitational forces of physics that pull the planets together, shapes our selves in ways that are just as real and subject to their own laws as the laws of physics shape the planetary bodies that float in space. We develop relationally through the other bodies in play through our relational space around us.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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