Essay: The precarious nature of the self

This is a longer version of an original piece published in issue 34 of White magazine.
 Photo by Amelia Soegijono - Pictures and Hearts Photography

It’s risky business, this writing about the “self” because it is always in a state of flux. Many a time an author has penned a book, having arrived at some conclusion about life, only to have found that what they thought their life to be would soon take a turn: a divorce, for example, or, in Elizabeth Gilbert’s case, a divorce, change in gender preference, and a new girlfriend.

All this is only to say that when considering yourself, you have to be a bit wary, cautious, perhaps even coy, at the very least discerning, because, oh boy!, can the self do a turn when least expected. It is wise to consider what can be made public and what should remain private. In this age of the over-share and rampant media speculation, I wonder that perhaps there will be a swing back to discretion?

Lore Ferguson Wilbert recently wrote in an online piece of “the personal narrative that readers, writers, and publishers worship at”. But at what cost? “All together, we’ve grown fat on a feast of viral blogs, short-lived bestsellers, and pithy articles,” she wrote. Sometimes we need to go “offline” in order to get the deeper self-work done; and it’s simply not for public consumption.

After making self-disclosure, opinion and blogging my game for a number of years, I was truly ready to hang up my boots and hand over to someone else. I’ve often thought of putting up a sign that reads, “IN CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT”, to ward off anyone who dares ask, “What have you been up to? Are you still writing? Still blogging?”, because for the past few years my deepest need has been to create a home sanctuary, to support my husband, to support my father through prostate cancer treatment and to nurture my baby girls. This has left little ground for gratifying self-contemplation, reflection or personal writing.

So where to begin when propositioned by White magazine with the question, “Who were you when you married your husband?” Truthfully, I don’t think I had a clue.  At 26, I had many pairs of nice shoes, a plum job in magazine publishing, exciting career prospects, European passport stamps and gorgeous girlfriends, but I was also incredibly restless. I had a lot of questions.

Subsequently, leading up to and after I walked down the aisle to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” to marry my husband I filled approximately 25 journals with scribblings articulating inner wrestlings over everything from my body image (ah, the wasted years!), to my parents’ divorce, to God (where were you all those years ago?). And I’m not sure that those dealings should ever see the light of day (they remain locked away in a cupboard at home), as cool as it is to have the Amy Schumers of the world unleash their selves in tell-all book form and the Taylor Swifts translate their experiences into catchy song lyrics.

Once I was asked to write a book. The deal fell through – I couldn’t deliver the goods because I was numb to what I had to offer and didn’t want to churn out something predictable or, worse, that would suggest I had it all together because, “Hey, I wrote a book!”.  There’s a fine line between bravely sharing your story because you deeply believe it may help someone else, or to simply give others pleasure, and self-gratification or masochism under the guise of “Seize every opportunity!”. Self-expression is a necessary thing, for we were created to create, but surely not for the sake of simply expressing every single thought and feeling?

The world can be very cruel, taking what we create and stamping on it , as the blogger Natalie Holbrook found out after publishing her own delightful tome to the scorn of GOMI (Get Off My Internets) readers. “It legitimately put me on anti-depressants,” she told The Guardian. “I had this disgusting weight in my stomach, because I knew it would be torn to shreds, not because it wasn’t good, but because I knew it wasn’t going to be what they wanted it to be.”

Now, Brene Brown would discourage us all from turning away from being vulnerable, or hiding our “authentic selves”, because vulnerability is what makes us human and it’s not weakness but strength. And so is learning. And the “journey” of life. You’ve got to be in the trenches with everyone sometimes, not simply protecting your veggie patch from insect invasion. It takes courage to show up and be counted. To be seen and validated and embraced by one’s fellow humans. To be included is an essential part of the human experience.

But I do think we have to be a little bit choosey about who we invite into that vulnerability; and our spouse and closest friends should be the primary receptors, not the online world. “Daring greatly” (even somewhat reluctantly) sounds like a noble endeavor, but if you know yourself well enough, and love that self, then you also want to add a layer of protection. You do not have to share, like or tag everything. And if you are feeling especially vulnerable in any situation, you have to count the cost: is it really worth it?

“Since the false self is fabricated on secondary things we idolize, like reputation, success, status, family and jobs, it is always vulnerable,” writes Adele Ahlberg in The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. “Things that can be here today and gone tomorrow provide a precarious mooring for the soul. Our truest identity can never be something we accomplish, earn or prove on our own.”

I’ve often thought of writing a piece like this as handing an editor a little bit of your soul and saying, “Here, please be careful”, and then entrusting it and letting go. It’s in the “letting go” that we become vulnerable. We cannot predict how others will receive us or how our thoughts will be misconstrued or appreciated. But letting go of our selves is what marriage is all about. It’s what you sign up for when you say “I do”.

This doesn’t mean losing yourself in the sense that your new name (if you so choose) becomes you and you are now Mr or Mrs and not yourself anymore. But it does mean knowing your motives, your heart’s desires and likes and dislikes, and being prepared to let them fall away if it’s necessary to sustain the marriage (notably, this should be done willingly and joyfully, and not with overtones of doubt or regret), such as acknowledging that your online shopping habit may impinge on your financial security, or that your jealousy issues or lack of personal hygiene could be a bit socially isolating.

Discovery of each other is such a privilege and wonder – we get to see the nooks and crannies of each other’s feelings, emotions, thoughts and actions, and to explore them with an intimacy that no one else will enjoy. With this obviously comes an enormous responsibility to protect and not project what is told or seen in private while you are both “in character development”. This should be a mutal agreement with humble acknowledgement of your often fallible, awkward humanness and the deep desire to see one another flourishing.

Complementarianism, which is the marital creed I subscribe to, requires a definite sense of self in order to be accomplished within a marriage. You cannot be complementary if you have no idea what it is that you bring to the table, and nor can your partner. You both have to have an awareness of the strengths, weaknesses, skills, habits, personality quirks and relationships you bring to the marriage, and then to negotiate how they can best work together to achieve things you simply could not do alone. YOU ARE PERFECTED IN YOUR UNITY AND YOUR INDIVIDUALITY.

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image,” wrote Thomas Merton in No Man Is an Island.  “If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

Would Hugh Jackman be the super guy he is without Deborrah Lee? Christ Hemsworth without Elsa Pataky? Hamish without Zoe? George without Amal? And conversely? (I once attended an awards ceremony in which the female recipient failed to acknowledge the unfailing support of her husband…if the shoe had been on the other foot, he would have been chastened for his oversight).

When The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article titled “Hamish Blake’s wife tells of life behind The Wrong Girl scenes”, commentator Mia Freedman replied, “Zoe [Foster-Blake] is an accomplished, self-made woman in her own right, and has been since long before she married anyone. She’s proud of her husband, proud of her son, loves being a wife and loves being a mother. But first and foremost she is a person not an appendage.”

(Cue feminist applause.)

For every He who something there is a She doing similarly. They are inextricably connected through the bond of marriage, but all the stronger for their mutual support, affections, encouragements, sharing of talents and knowledge, and childcare.

How wonderful to think that you will know this person better than anyone else on earth; and that they will know you in this way, too, and help you to become the best version of you?! In fact, through their unique point of view, your spouse may get to know you better than you do.

I am always startled by my husband’s ability to nail my flaws and show them up for what they are before they have a chance to settle into habits that leave scars. It is often incredibly uncomfortable, and I may sulk occasionally, but he, in turn, is constantly humbled by my unique ability to downplay his obvious strengths (good looks, strong mind, resilience) while buffering his weaknesses.

One of my recurrent shortcomings as a human being is the inability to handle a certain level of stress – usually a deadline compounded by multiple other needs; primarily my child’s or my husband’s, which throws me into a state of conflict that I cant conceal, least of all from those in close proximity. Herein the problem: my own desire to do good work and a good job in competition with the time constraints of motherhood and the necessary sacrifices entailed by wanting to be a supportive wife and a nurturing, attentive mother.

Ahlberg Calhourn writes, “Each of us has a beautiful true self inside of us. It is God’s gift to us. But many of us can hardly take this in. Somewhere life taught us that our true self wasn’t welcome or safe or wanted. Consequently, we learned to hide our true self. In its place we constructed a false self. This self has a defensive, non-resilient, mistrustful, reactive core. This reactive core is at the centre of our disordered relationships. It sabotages our ability to trust…others.”

For some, this means scrambling toward outside things – Facebook, Instagram, the shops, jobs, the gym! - looking for some understanding or validation of who we are and the life we are living when really it’s the core of you, your very “youness” that is the thing you could be most afraid of and are trying to conceal or run from.

When you envision “your narrative”, you don’t particularly entertain the pitiful moments, the self-defeating attitudes, the sorrow you cause others or the characteristics you deplore in yourself (and others). You think of the ‘ideal you’, the one in the best light winning at life, high-fiving your goals and being feted by family and friends who are proud as punch to call you their own.

You are not someone defeated by their demons sleeping rough on the street; not that poor, feckless soul all wrinkled and old whose pension is poured into the pokies; not the ‘unrealised genius’ who was never able to overcome self-doubt and realize his potential. In your daydreams you see victory. And because you rather fancy yourself, you think this is how it should be.

But then you stumble across someone who is succeeding at life on every possible front and the word ‘FAILURE’ enters your periphery. So you slink back into yourself, like a snail retreating into its shell, and sluggishly carry on with the life you’ve been dealt, never daring again to imagine this self who you put up on a pedestal – less a victory march, more a walk of humble acceptance with occasional glimpses through the window into a starry sky full of promise. Perhaps some day you will reach perfection?

What is our response? There are no tidy conclusions, no linear storylines in life. It is complex and often defeating.  But the best thing we can hold onto is this idea of who we are and why we are here – our “purpose”, if you will – and ride the rough terrain with our partner navigating. But first you need a compass: your value system. Do you place a priority on people or productivity? On achievement or humbly serving others? On exciting experiences or simple pleasures? In what ways can you complement or encourage each other’s mental, spiritual, intellectual, physical or creative development?

To reconcile your weaknesses and your strengths, to take an objective view of yourself as best you can, to reconcile the ideas manufactured by the world that don’t suit you…with these come freedom. A life lived in harmony with one’s fellow human beings (starting with your spouse) starts here; in the knowledge and unconditional love of self but the willingness to override selfish desires for the greater good. It is equally applicable at home as it is in the community or workplace or the realms of politics, economics and humanitarianism; in fact, that sort of human generosity starts at home.

As Aristotle once said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” So do the work, for the sake of yourself and your marriage - ditch the stuff that doesn’t suit, file away the precious if you can’t bear to part with it, but keep the good stuff – the things that make you feel wonderful and so very “you” at the forefront. Plough deep into your past and make friends with your mistakes and forgive the wrongs done against you, too. And, importantly, don’t for a second think that you are not worthy of your unique personality, hopes and dreams.

But don’t be so caught up on “self discovery” that you forget about everyone else, least of all your spouse. Because we truly become ourselves in relation to others; and, in fact, you will become the best version of yourself because your partner is doing the self-work with you.

Some simple take-home ideas to cut n paste…

- Take care of yourself;
- Speak up honestly about your needs;
- Acknowledge and admit your weaknesses and mistakes;
- Don’t let your vulnerabilities become your creed;    
- And seek out ways to meet others’ needs; to bless the world with all you’ve been given (singly and as a couple); and be the best you that you can be.