A couple of days ago, off duty and minding my own business, I was asked a really good question, “as a psychologist”. Luckily, I had the foresight to ask for a little time to think about the answer.
The question: How would I describe a “self”?
The answer came, as answers sometimes do, in a dream. This one woke me up this morning, before dawn. I sat down at the computer and wrote out a fairly passable answer. This is what I came up with:
1) Generally, each of us struggles with a limited number of “front burner” issues. Cognitive psychologists put the number at 8: plus or minus two.
2) While these issues are often seem independent, competition among them sets up multiple internal conflicts, claiming what feels to be all of our attention. Then, once resolved, their specifics almost disappear, replaced by new issues. We keep forgetting.
- (Think about it: what exactly were the four most pressing things on your mind (in detail), eight weeks ago? What were the three things on your mind within the first two minutes of waking up this morning?)
3) Often, among these 8 +/- 2 topics, there are ongoing issues that continuously snag us— or find their voice, embedded in other issues.
4) At any given moment, “who” I am, that entity I call my “self”, is most likely the sum of all the issues to which I am paying attention— whether actively or passively.
5) What we pay attention to has two functions: both the obvious one of presence and the less obvious one of keeping other thoughts out— its defensive function.
6) The consolidation of self is our act of curating the themes of these issues over time— their consistency and coherence through our lives.
7) A good example of what I mean is reflected in Samuel Beckett’s play, “Krapp’s Last Tape”. The central character is involved in a review of tape-recordings made at different points in his life. His review, no matter how distressing to him (or audience), is an act of curation: of reflection and consolidation of who he has been (and remains): it is, however difficult, a statement of self.
8) For many, it is possible to allow this kind of consolidation to slip away. By not reflecting, by not curating what we’ve thought, where we’ve been, our lives may appear as a linear course of struggles, morphing into new struggles, without central purpose, reason or rhyme. If not exactly selfless, then often felt as pointless or without meaning: uncentered.
Or so it seemed this morning, before sunrise.