The Illusion of an Autonomous Self

True Self/False Self: Week 1

The Illusion of an Autonomous Self
Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I am using the terms True Self and false self as they were used by Thomas Merton. In his classic New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton writes:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man [or woman] that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him [or her]. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy. [1]

That’s why the false self is so fragile. It’s inherently insecure because it’s almost entirely a creation of the mind, a social construct. It doesn’t exist except in the world of perception—which is where we live most of our lives—instead of in God’s Eternal Now. When you die, what dies is your false self because it never really existed to begin with. It simply lives in your thoughts and projections. It’s what you want yourself to be and what you want others to think you are. It’s very tied up with status symbols and reputation.

Whenever you are offended, it’s usually because your self-image has not been worshiped or it has been momentarily exposed. The false self will quickly react with a vengeance to any offenses against it because all it has is its own fragile assumptions about itself. Narcissists have a lot of asserting and defending to do, moment by moment. Don’t waste much time defending your ego. The True Self is untouchable, or as Paul puts it “it takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13:5). People who can live from their True Selves are genuinely happy.

Merton continues:

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. [2]

Merton says:

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. . . . For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which does not even exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. [3]

What we call sins are actually symptoms of the illusion that we are separated from God. Yet most people attack the symptom instead of the cause!

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. [4]

You have been given something so much better: “For all belongs to you, you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:22-23). Your True Self is already home free! To know that is to be “saved.”

Gateway to Silence:
You live in me; I live in you.

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (Shambhala: 2003), 36.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 37.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, True Self/ False Self (Franciscan Media: 2003, 2013), disc 4 (CD); and
“Horizontal Identity and Vertical Identity,” Homily, June 19, 2016, https://cac.org/horizontal-identity-vertical-identity/.

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