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The Illusion of Our False Self

True Self and False Self: Week 2

The Illusion of Our False Self
Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Guest writer and CAC faculty member James Finley continues exploring insights on the true self and false self that he gleaned from Thomas Merton.

In the following text, Merton makes clear that the self-proclaimed autonomy of the false self is but an illusion:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

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.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. [1]

The false self, sensing its fundamental unreality, begins to clothe itself in myths and symbols of power. Since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, it begins to convince itself that it is what it does. Hence, the more it does, achieves and experiences, the more real it becomes. Merton writes:

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. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. [2]

Eventually and inevitably that which was too awful even to think about finally happens. Death reveals in us that eventually tomorrow is today and that we have run out of time. We discover by force of death that, as Merton describes:

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasure and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake. [3]

Gateway to Silence:
I am one with God.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions Paperbook: 1972), 34.
[2] Ibid., 34-35.
[3] Ibid., 35.

Adapted from James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 33, 35, 36.