Given the silence that greeted the question, and feeling the awkwardness of the moment, I found myself verbalising something that I had held secretly for several weeks: “I’m going to give myself up for Lent,” I announced in front of everyone at church. Of course, blurted out like that it did sound rather pretentious and non-sensical. What’s more, rather than encouraging others to join in, all hope of a discussion was quashed by my pretence. After all, saying you are going to give up chocolate does seem rather weak-willed when the bloke sitting next to you is going all out for an existential full stop. So we moved on, and sang another chorus, the lyrics of which were probably just as ambiguous and meaningless to most people as my own words.
Anyway, after the service the inevitable questioning began. ‘What do you mean you are giving yourself up for Lent?’ The honest answer would be, I don’t know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time: that being a reflective afternoon in late winter reading Thomas Merton. Privately, I felt this was a path worth following, especially for someone fast approaching their fiftieth year of life. In the silence of a suburban semi-detached, comfortable with the endless ruminating that most middle class people take for mindfulness, I could conjure with ideas of spiritual enlightenment and self-discovery that would liberate my soul from it’s mid-life angst. But now, blurted out in a moment of empathy for the person leading the service, I had gone public. An idea I could play with over whisky on a dark evening was now being scrutinised in the sobriety of Sunday morning coffee. So I grabbed for the first two things that came to mind: The search for the True Self, and the most emotionally overwhelming experience I ever had whilst in therapy.
In his Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton suggests that, ‘Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusionary person: a false self.’ He is not alone in making such observations. As is often the case, Richard Rohr echoes Merton at length in his book Immortal Diamond, arguing that we create and pursue this false self at the expense of our True Self, which ultimately undermines everything, including our relationship with God. As Rohr suggests, ‘I have far too often seen the immature and destructive results of people who . . . try to “have” God and hold onto their false and concocted little self.’ He goes on to say that many of us, ‘have put so much time into creating it that we cannot imagine this False Self not being true – or not being “me.”’ These are not new ideas to me. In fact, I’ve written about the implications of the tensions between a Real Self and an Idealised Self in my book Atonement for a Sinless Society. But now, riffing off the ideas of Merton and Rohr, trying to attempt an answer that had some semblance of coherence, giving myself up for Lent didn’t seem such a senseless quest after all.
Of course, some would say that we do not have a True Self, well not one that is unique and static enough to be isolated so that we may express ourselves this way. In his book, The Path, Professor Michael Puett of Harvard University would rather have us believe that we are, ‘a complex set of dispositions interacting with everything around us and constantly morphing as a result of that.’ Therefore, finding our True Self means we inevitably end up looking at ‘a small snapshot ourselves in time, not the entirety of all we are capable of being.’ He has my sympathy, after all I once authored a book with the title, A Permanent Becoming, in which I observe that ‘there can be no ceasing from an exploration of ourselves, the world in which we live, and the God in whom we believe.’ But I’m not sure that a constant morphing (or a permanent becoming) is mutually exclusive when it comes to a search for our True Self. At the very least, to recognise that as human beings we are all relational, as Puett’s theory requires, would surely be undermined if we are are only working out of a false version our self. What’s more, given an almost unanimous agreement that a constructed, false self is too often what we project out to the world implies that there must be something lurking behind this mask, whether we choose to name it True, Real, or Morph!
Which brings me briefly to the second thing that came to mind that morning – an out-of-body experience. Well, I suppose it was more of a next-to-body experience. All the same, it was one of the most profound and moving things that has ever happened to me, and I am still trying to process it two years on.
I’d been seeing a counsellor for several months just to go over some stuff that had been playing on my mind. Most sessions didn’t really have an agenda. I would talk and my counsellor would listen and ask pertinent questions to allow me to think more deeply and get to the real issues. However, on this particular occasion I’d been bothered by the fact that my doctor had said to me that she recognised that I was an anxious person. Now, I hardly ever see my doctor so I was taken aback by this observation and it had obviously pushed some button as I really felt the need to talk this though. Anyway, after I had talked for some time, my counsellor ask for a point of clarification: ‘So, what your saying is that your doctor could just have easily called you “Anxiety” as she could Alan?’ At this moment everything happened. I was angry. I was sobbing. And I was aware briefly of the sense of a child next to me. A boy. Perhaps ten years old with a very distinctive basin haircut. It was me. Except that it wasn’t me, was it? After all, I was in a chair sobbing and spitting out the words, ‘No, that’s not who Alan is! She can’t call Alan anxiety! Alan is someone else!’ In that moment, had my false self been peeled back so that I could get a sense of my True Self? Was the ten year old me the last time I really lived as my True Self? Had that boy been lost somewhere along the way, taking my True (non-anxious) Self with him? I don’t know. I’m still trying to process that brief moment in time. All I know is, the experience was very real. A little disturbing. But also strangely full of hope. Maybe I need to go in search of that boy, or whatever he represents. Or maybe he was just trying to tell me that what I needed to give up is the false self that I have been trying to create for over forty years. And while recognising and shedding this false self is not the same as having clarity about my True Self , or how I might live in the freedom of that revelation, at least I have an experience, a fixed point of reference from which to start. So, even though I’m still not sure what it really means, I am going to do my best to give myself up for Lent and see where it takes Me.