Saturday, July 31, 2004

On being a chameleon 

I am selfless; I am also selfish. The two opposing characteristics coexist.

Or to be a little more accurate, I exhibit selfless behaviour; I also feel selfish urges. What I do is mostly selfless; a learned outwards behaviour. Selfishness rebels against this but mostly loses out. Sometimes it feels like being a cartoon character, with the two sides – devil and angel – separated out, whispering conflicting advice. Outwardly, the angel seems to have the upper hand; inwardly I know the devil is still there, hiding, muttering under his breath. (Perhaps not such a good metaphor though; the two sides don't feel quite like right and wrong, good and evil, they're just two different aspects of personality, and any morality that comes into it is as uncertain as this whole thesis).

I guess that’s hardly unusual, and matches pretty closely to Freud’s model of the ego mediating between the id’s desire for gratification and the socially derived conscience of the superego. I’m no great fan of Freud’s approach to therapy, but his ideas of personality do seem to fit with experience.

People who know me would flatly refuse to believe that at core I’m selfish. Or maybe in admitting my selfishness they’d have also to acknowledge their own? But that’s another tangent... Maybe at core we all have the capacity to be all things? More tangents that will have to wait for another time…

There’s no doubt that the family environment in which I grew up created some views in me of self and selfishness that are way off to one side of the bell-curve of what is typical. Although I was never (as far as I can remember) directly put down as a child, never told anything explicitly that might have given rise to doubts about self-worth, I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of self-worth either. I think what I grew up with was a lack of any sense of the existence of intrinsic value in persons – anyone’s value, as an individual, either positive or negative. Neither a sense of worthlessness, nor a sense of worth, simply a lack of any concept of personal worth. I grew up believing it was good to be selfless and to do things for others, where ‘others’ was a vague generic term, never really recognising individuality. However the contradiction inherent in that philosophy – that to other people I too was an “other” and therefore they should be selflessly doing good to me – never occurred to me.

I don’t think my parents adopted selflessness because they wanted to; I think they did it because they felt it was “right”. And that, I think, was an outlook that came in turn from my paternal grandmother, her superego passing down through the generations. Sure, they led righteous lives and did plenty of good, but looking back, try as I might, I can’t remember any behaviours from my parents that would have demonstrated to me the worth of individuals. It was all good deeds for the sake of doing good, for the benefit of mankind at large; individuals were only representatives of mankind.

[Aside: There's a feeling, a concept, I'm having difficulty finding words for; something that goes beyond simple respect for the individual; almost a reverence for individuality. Not the modern cult of "I", but the right of every individual to be themselves. Something fundamental enough to be embodied in Article 22 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. More thought needed...]

How would I have known if I had value? How would I have seen it measured? On a material scale I seemed to have less possessions than other kids; got less valuable Christmas presents, less pocket-money. I know we weren’t all that well-off, but I never had any sense of anyone pushing the boat out on my behalf. I resented that a little.

More deeply felt than that though were the times when my just-developing sense of identity was crushed, when I wasn’t allowed to explore what it meant to be me. Not being allowed to join the Cub Scouts with my school friends, because the group was attached to a different church. Especially, I remember clothing. No jeans – jeans apparently were something that badly behaved, scruffy kids wore. And only Sensible Shoes. Eventually, I suppose they gave in to practicality, but not before I’d learned that there were standards I was supposed to conform to and that those standards seemed different to everyone else’s. Standards like having to wear Sunday Best on Sundays, and only those activities that could be undertaken when so dressed were deemed appropriate for Sundays. I may have grown up through the late 50s/early 60s, but to begin with it was as a child of the 1930s/1940s. I'm sure they were convinced that pop music was the work of the devil.

My parents, my father especially, were puritanically strict. I suppose I was loved; but I didn’t have direct experience of what it felt like to be loved. My father was a devout Christian who knew his Bible back to front. He would have known and believed both “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God… Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Unfortunately it was the latter that seemed to me to take precedence.

Where did that all lead? That approach had severe repercussions elsewhere in our family which have reverberated down through the years, but that side isn’t something for a blog – not mine, anyway.

And that, I think, is what stopped me becoming me. Having to abide by all those rules; learning to suppress individuality in order to conform to type. I still do that; still do what other people want, still appear to be the way that I know is how they want me to appear. A chameleon.

Not having experienced strong acknowledgement of self-worth, of my right to discover and be just whoever I felt I was becoming, I never realised I was missing anything, never knew that something was being taken away, being denied me. That in a sense, I was being killed even as I was being born.

It’s the struggle to break free from that and pick up the threads of individuality that were laid aside all those years ago that is behind so much that has appeared lately here in this blog. Learning that the voice that for all these years I’ve called selfishness may not, after all, be all bad. All those phrases like “discovering my authentic self”, “connecting with my soul” amount to picking up something “I” left off many, many years ago. Way, way back, before “I” really had a chance to form. I suppose it’s no wonder then that it’s not easy.

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