The False Self
There is a version you that you identify with as who you actually are, but it is a complete fiction. It doesn’t actually exist, except within your mind. This is the place of universal addiction, the self-referential, self-defending, self-promoting, self-defeating, self-condemning, endlessly relating-to-everything-from-yourself-as-the-reference-point story you started writing from the first moment you experienced your first flash of shame or pride.
It’s got a lot of names. Its most common name is the ego. The Apostle Paul called the flesh, which is unfortunate because that sounds like our bodies, whereas Paul was referring to our striving to obtain a secure sense of self. And striving is the defining mark of this version of you. It never stops narrating everything to try to give you a sense of security. It never stops because it never arrives. It never gets there.
A Cistercian monk called Basil Pennington coined the phrase “false self” to highlight the fact that the person we think we are is not us at all. However, it’s not a bad self. It has an important role in helping us function in the world, but it has no hope of grounding us in any meaningful way. I’m using it right now, as a true functional or role self but a false identity. but it’s not me. I like the term “constructed self” to express my role in writing my own fiction-as-truth over the past 55 years.
As we get older, we hopefully become aware of how boring, repetitive and sticky the scripts our false selves are, like ever deepening grooves in a record. They get deeper and more entrenched every time we listen to them, and we can’t stop listening to them. Robert Bly wrote
There’s a boy in you about three
years old who hasn’t learned a thing for thirty
This child had to make up its mind
How to save you from death. He said things like:
“Stay home. Avoid elevators. Eat only elk.”
You live with this child, but you don’t know it.
You’re in the office, yes, but live with this boy
At night. He’s uninformed, but he does want
To save your life. And he has. Because of this boy
You survived a lot. He’s got six big ideas.
Five don’t work. Right now he’s repeating them to you.
Scripture uses another image for this false self from the metaphor of family. It calls the false self an orphan. It has no parent. It believes it is alone in the world. Because it is alone, it has no objective, absolute reference point for what security looks like, so it uses the only thing it can find – the subjective world of performance and judgment and comparison and competition.
Because it conceives of reality from the perspective of being an orphan and because it is a total fiction, it can never achieve security. Everything it uses to obtain security is outside itself. For example, if you say I’m clever, wonderful, my false self feels secure for as long as I can hear you say those words. But when I go home and am alone, or my wife tells me I’m useless, or I get hit with a huge tax bill, what happens? There’s only two options: Either I project my destabilisation on others to find someone or something to blame, or I blame myself. Others are against me, or I am not enough.
And here’s the rub. Every single offence we feel is our only invitation to realise that the false self will never secure us, and to consider another way. But because the false self hates any form of pain, it uses offence to reinforce its own programs. The gift of humiliation is the only way we know that our false selves are eternally impotent. How would we know that there are depths to us that, to quote Jesus, are the fount of endless living water?
Mark Nepo wrote this poem called Understory that highlights how we try to change the scenery by telling the story over and over, thinking our thinking will fix the problem. He writes:
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
…It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
The thing about the false self is it is obsessed with the notion that there is a perfect, a world where everything is ideal, nothing is missing, a utopian existence where I am king, secure, powerful, loved, where life is easy and I am always satisfied. It’s a complete illusion, but it’s a very potent illusion. We believe in this Shangri-la not because we have been there, but because we’ve tasted the opposite. We’ve felt the gap. The shortage. The lack.
This diagram might help explain the false self in action.
If there’s a lack, then someone owes us, or we have to try harder to close the gap. French philosopher Rene Girard coined the term “mimetic theory” to describe how we mimic another’s desire for something or someone, which creates in us the desire in us for the same thing. It’s an entirely human dilemma. That guy is so successful, we observe. We compare. Or that Porsche is so sexy. I have to earn more than him – I must compete.
From about age 6 or 7 up until about 30, the false self is almost the only game in town -and this is vital, not wrong. We need to know we are good at stuff. We need to have a solid ego to know that there’s something essentially valuable about our existence, especially when the false self inevitably fails. It’s a fragile ego that works hardest at trying to secure someone. For such people, the false self can hog the stage until 70 or 80. Recently, a dear man in his 80s asked my wife which of our sons is the most spiritual. When was that a competition? She replied by saying that they each have their own journey, and that one was becoming a Catholic, to which he said “I imagine that’s so he can go in and change them.” These things are entirely false self reasoning. It’s an endless schoolyard game of my dad’s better than your dad. I have the answers. It’s scary to think that a large amount of foreign mission work is done with this motivation. Clever us can help those poor, ignorant people.
The false self loves categories – income, education, age, weight, any talent, we use the false self to fill our lives with things that don’t matter. And it doesn’t stop at the personal level. Religion, politics, race, gender, sexuality… Nations are corporate fictions, and nationalism is in some ways investing in this collective false self. Our lives are almost entirely constructed around things that don’t actually exist. They are merely stories we use to help manage our lives, but we identify with these stories as our lives. Bumper stickers that say “God bless America” or “Australia for Australians” are absurd statements. Yes, people who live in those two geographic regions deserve certain unalienable rights, but so does every body else. But the false self must exclude. That’s how it creates boundaries to have the illusion of control over what happens in life.
Our society recognises no other version of the self, individually or collectively. It is the only game in town. It sells sport, entertainment, runs business and religion and government. And it is bankrupt. It is for this reason that Jesus favourite, disturbing metaphor for the gateway to life was death.
The True Self
So if you’re not the self you think you are, then who are you?
Like the false self, there are a bunch of terms to describe the true self. The word “spirit” is used, as is the God self, or for Carl Jung, the capital S Self.
This is how Thomas Merton described it:
“At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is every- where.”
Merton was borrowing from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who wrote
Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
So who are you, really? The short answer is your true self is an absolute mystery.
Another way to put it is you are who you are, and that is enough. But that does not help you understand this true self, and there’s no way to comprehend it, you can only encounter life from within it. It is mute and disabled and empty, it has no comprehension or interest in definitions. Merton described it as our poverty. It is tiny and weightless and hidden from view. It is from our true selves that God disposes of our lives. So, we cannot find it unless we “die” to ourselves, our false selves. The true self is silent, like the grave, so without constant invitations to become empty, the false self will never give up conrol. The true self isn’t interested in noise. It is impossible to navigate the infinite with words. As It has no interest in achievements, it is unperturbed by failure or sickness, it is calm when we are insulted or attacked or rejected.
The best way to describe it is to tell of its experiences, which are always in the immediate moment and never possessed, nor sought, simply enjoyed. Again, Merton describes it like this:
“What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what he Himself takes most seriously. At any rate, the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing.
“When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash–at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.
“For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
“Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”
So the question remains, how do we access our true selves, and how do we live out of them? As I’ve said above, the first step is to learn to welcome humiliation. It’s the only way you will know the machinery you’ve carefully constructed will never work.
When I did my rites in 2009, the first rite plunged me immediately into the futility of my entire life’s efforts at securing me. I saw my false self, front and centre. I did not like what I saw, but instead of judging it, something deep within me rose and up and loved it. I found tears falling down my cheeks as I felt the tenderest compassion for this self into which I had poured every ounce I had. I was saying to it “you poor, pathetic thing, you’ve worked so hard for so long to be good enough, to get there, and you’ve failed, you were always going to fail, and now as the whole thing comes undone, I say thank you for trying so hard.”
I have found that it’s only in silence and in ritual space that we get beyond the persona and the ego and start digging away through our shadows and then dive more deeply into the collective archetypes that we share. As we wade through the dark labyrinth of our psyches, we descend down to a place where we discover another voice that we slowly recognise as our own, a voice of tenderness and intimacy, a voice that is grounded in the eternal now. This voice is calm and quiet and still and whole.
As a bookend – and I would not have been ready to face this early on in the rites – at the end of my initiation, I faced humiliation viscerally and powerfully. I felt the last vestiges of my false self fall away as my true self owned his power. I cannot describe this rite except to say that it is at this point that – for many if not most men – we get to taste the depth of strength hidden in the weakness of our true selves.
Unlike the false self, the true self is no orphan. It knows union, communion. It belongs, always. It is far less interested in being correct, it transcends right and wrong and lives from connection. As we live from it, we discover we are connected to everyone and everything, always.
The most powerful transition to our true selves is the place of accepting and embracing failure, loss, shame, humiliation, struggle and disappointment as central to life. This is why God chose to substitute the cross for all our ideals. This is the most comprehensively destabilising image that we could imagine for our false selves. They cannot comprehend this. They will do everything they can to insulate us from this. But the true self dances in darkness, and rests in discomfort.
It takes a lifetime to journey from living out of our false selves to becoming grounded in our true selves. I admit that I’m still a beginner. I may never get much further. The Men’s Rites of Passage gave me the tools and let me dip into this wonderful life giving identity long enough to wake me up from unconscious living. You only need to swallow the red pill, you don’t need much more than that to know your life will never be the same.