One Reason We Oppress Ourselves

In some conversations, topics change so fast that the conversation itself is more than a wee bit like a time-lapse movie in which a whole 24 hour day rushes past you in just a few minutes.  Such conversations can be fun or exasperating, depending on your mood.  Yesterday evening, I was very much in the mood, and my friends Ami and Karina were obliging me with a rush of ideas.  Here’s a snippet of that conversation:

At some point near the middle of the conversation, Karina stated that, “Ben Franklin never said, ‘Some people are dead at 25, but not buried until 75’, even though that proverb is often attributed to him”.

Karina’s remark prompted Ami to say, “I think we often limit ourselves by saying something is uncharacteristic of us”.

And, naturally, that got me thinking about black raspberry ice cream.

Of course, on the surface, Karina’s statement, Ami’s remark, and my thought might appear to have nothing to do with each other.  Indeed, I must admit I can see how people other than Karina, Ami, and I might be put in danger of being driven insane trying to figure out the link between them.

But the three of us are in no danger — if only because we each are already so thoroughly maxed when it comes to insanity that we cannot be driven any further in the direction of it.   In fact, the link between Karina’s statement, Ami’s remark, and my thought is actually a tight one.  And the rest of this blog post will drive you just as bonkers as the three of us already are safely reveal to you how very tight that link is.

My small hometown didn’t have a proper ice cream store until I was about ten or eleven years old.  Until then, the only places you could find ice cream were in the two grocery stores, and they sold only the most popular flavors: Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.   This cruel and intolerable situation was relieved when an ice cream shop obviously devoted to saving my childhood opened up near the edge of town and began selling about a dozen flavors of frozen joy.

However, when I made my very first trip to the store, I was confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem: I had not expected such a multitude of choices; I was completely overwhelmed; and I could not make up my mind which flavor to buy.  In the end, my mother rescued me by suggesting the black raspberry.

Never before in my life was I so convinced my mother was a genius than the moment I laid tongue to the black raspberry.  The flavor seized me and I was instantly enthralled to it.   In fact, I liked it so much that I never risked trying any of the other flavors the shop sold due to my mere suspicion they couldn’t possibly be as pleasurable as the black raspberry.  My relationship with the ice cream ran even deeper than that, however.

Most of know how something can become, not just a thing we like, but a part of us.  It’s a curious trait of our species that we can self-identify with just about anything, whether that be some tangible object like a car, a favorite sweater, or a flavor of ice cream; or it be some intangible thing like a political ideology, an idea, a religion, or even the roles we play in life of someone’s son, daughter, friend, wife, husband, etc.  That is, we frequently — indeed, we routinely — define ourselves as in part this or that thing.  Sometimes we say, “Those shoes are so me!” — and mean it.  I did exactly that with black raspberry ice cream.  I not only liked it, but I came to think of it as a part of what made me — me.

In one the most poignant tragedies of my childhood, the ice cream shop went out of business in a couple of years, and black raspberry disappeared from my town and my life.  I became a bitter, disillusioned addict in withdrawal, wandering the asphalt streets, haunting the graveled alleys of my town, living only for the memories I somehow managed to survive the closing.  But the story doesn’t end there.

A few years later while at uni I came across black raspberry again.  At first I was delighted to find it being sold in a campus shop.   That delight passed quickly though.  I discovered that my tastes had changed.  The flavor no longer grabbed me.  Indeed, it seemed surpassed by chocolate or even vanilla now.

Yet — once I rediscovered it — I kept ordering it!  Then one day, while licking a scoop of it, I had a moment when it all became clear to me: Though I no longer much cared for the flavor, I had self identified with it, and giving it up was just a bit frightening to me — as if it would mean giving up part of myself!

For reasons I don’t know, that day’s insight has never dulled in my mind.  It’s as fresh to me today as it was when it first jumped into my head.  So, the other evening, when Ami said, “I think we often limit ourselves by saying something is uncharacteristic of us”, pretty much my first thought was how well her remark tied into my experience of for a while limiting myself to black raspberry at uni even though I had by then become bored with it.

Of course, Karina’s remark that, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”, also struck a chord with me.  The problem of unnecessarily limiting ourselves as a consequence of self-identification would be a very minor one if we only did it with a few things here and there, and those things were relatively unimportant to our quality of life.  But we do it routinely, and with myriads of things.  If we are not careful, we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way.

Yet, why does it happen?  Why do we oppress ourselves in that way?

I believe the best way to answer those questions is to make a study of the human self.  And by the “self”, I mean the psychological self, for each of us is not just a physical self, a body, but a psychological self, and it is our psychological self that identifies with things.  What, then, is the nature of this psychological self?

It seems to me that it is no mere accident that the psychological self identifies with things, but that it is its very nature to identify with things.  It can be thought of as always seeking to define itself in terms of its relationships to the things — both tangible and intangible — of this world.  It is important to recognize that it can perform that identification both positively and negatively.  That is, we can define ourselves positively — like I did — as being in some part and way my fondness for black raspberry ice cream.  But it is conceivable that I could have under other circumstances (say, I was repelled by the taste of it) defined myself negatively as being in some part and way a person who doesn’t like black raspberry ice cream.  For instance, a great many people identify themselves as not just “a progressive”, but also as “not a conservative” too.  So, I think the first thing to recognize about the psychological self is that it is always seeking to identify itself in terms of its relationships with things.

A second thing to recognize is that it is always trying to maintain and preserve those relationships.  That is, it can be thought of as wanting them to stay fixed pretty much just the way they are.  Typically change is threatening to the psychological self unless — and this is key — the change in question amounts merely to an aggrandizement of it.

To illustrate, suppose you took up studying Hinduism and quickly came to think of yourself as “someone who is studying to become a Hindu”.  It is doubtful in those circumstances that you would feel threatened by learning more and more about Hinduism.  After all, what you are learning does not contradict your image of yourself as “someone studying to become a Hindu”.  Instead, it expands on that image, it aggrandizes it.

But now suppose you pick up a book on Islam and you come across a passage in which the author asserts that Islam is the one true religion, and that all other religions are false, including Hinduism.  Now you might feel threatened because the author’s view contradicts your image of yourself.  The psychological self readily embraces new things and changes that aggrandize it, but just as readily rejects new things and changes that diminish it.

But if all this talk of the psychological self happens to be true — and that’s something for you to decide — then why does the self behave as it does?

I believe the psychological self is essentially a defense mechanism.  More precisely, it functions to identify or define that which we should defend in order to survive.  This might not be so easily seen if all you’re thinking of is the self identifying with a scoop of ice cream.  A scoop of ice cream is certainly not all that important to our survival.  Why would we need to identify with it?  But the self identifies with much else, and much that is key to our survival.

I am reminded here of the time Jiddu Krishnamurti met a tiger.  He and a few friends were traveling in a car through a forest in India when they came upon a tiger in the road.  The driver stopped the car, and the tiger began to prowl about it.  Krishnamurti’s window was open, and as the tiger passed beneath it, Krishnamurti — who at that moment happened to be in a meditative state in which he was selfless — spontaneously moved to reach out and pet the tiger.

Even Krishnamurti himself later admitted that it was fortunate one of his friends immediately leaped to pull back his arm and then roll up the window.  The incident illustrates the importance of the psychological self.   Without it, we would not defend ourselves against many — perhaps even the overwhelming majority of — the threats and dangers we face in life.  We might still have our defensive reflexes — such as reflexively ducking when an object is thrown at our head, or throwing our arms up when a tiger is actually charging us — but we would lack an ability to imagine threats to us: To see in the non-charging tiger who is at the moment merely passing peacefully beneath our window a potential threat to our selves.   In order to conceive of something as a threat to us, we must first and perhaps foremost have some notion of an “us”.  That is, some notion of a self.   By identifying and defining what is us, the psychological self functions as a key component of our self defense.

To be sure, its functioning is by no means perfect.  For one thing, it so quite often causes us to defend when no defense is actually needed.   I think nearly everyone knows at least one or two touchy people who have some nonessential image of themselves that they nevertheless defend as vigorously as if their lives depended on it.  I once knew a woman who so self identified with the brand of cigarettes she smoked that I one day inadvertently brought her nearly to tears by saying nothing more threatening to her than, “I have never been able to stand the taste of cigarettes, including your brand.”  From what she said to me next, it was as if I’d slapped her.

The psychological self, then, by functioning to define our self images creates the self that we will strive to preserve and maintain, while allowing that self to change only in ways that aggrandize it.  Although this is a vital, albeit imperfect, component of our defense against dangers to us,  it can turn on us oppressively if we are unskillful in coping with it. When that happens, we can become as inflexible in our views, attitudes, routines and behaviors as stone, rendering us ridged, insensitive, and uncreative when meeting the challenges of life, and unable to seize upon those challenges in order to develop ourselves in new, perhaps unforeseen ways.  In short, we become the tyrant of our own lives, our own oppressor.

Your thoughts?

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