On not knowing who you are

As children we accept at face-value the actions and reactions of those around us, those closest to us.

What does “at face-value” mean in this context?

It means we don’t consider the hidden motives, considerations, fears, and desires that might be influencing other people’s behaviour.

It’s no surprise that children don’t try to peer inside other people’s minds. Many adults don’t even try, and even trained psychologists can get it wrong, or be ineffectual.

Besides, we tend to assume that other people are like us on the inside. Young children are quite straightforward — for a child, face value is the only value.

The problem with this ‘face-value’ approach is that most adults are not straightforward. So, children are raised in an environment full of disparity.

There’s a disparity of information between the child who takes everything at face-value, and the adult who knows that life is complicated and long and everything has a backstory.

There’s a disparity of power, where the child is dependent on the adult for its very survival.

There’s a disparity of psychological formation, where the events and relationships the child experiences will inform its future with greater impact than the already mostly-formed adult.

In this disparate environment the child makes a serious mistake — it accepts the actions, reactions, and treatment of others as a true and honest reflection of their own existence, nature, and qualities.

We know ourselves primarily through our relationships, but children lack the experience and insight to understand that those relationships are imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed sources of knowledge.

It’s like trying to work out what your face looks like without a proper mirror to help you. So you look at whatever reflective surfaces you can find.

Other people can be very imperfect, very limited reflective surfaces. From them we try to piece together a self-image. But if we don’t know that these reflections are so imperfect, the self-image we infer from them will be horribly distorted.

Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, or dysfunction are often said to be damaged by their up-bringing, and in a sense that is true. But it’s important to also recognise the nature of that damage.

A significant portion of the damage is contained in a distorted self-image, inferred from a face-value perspective of their formative relationships.

Why is this damaging?

Because if the people closest to you — the ones who know you best — treat you badly, then the face-value explanation is that you don’t deserve any better than this bad treatment.

If the people closest to you betray, humiliate, threaten, or harm you, then either there’s something wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with you.

The truth is that there’s something wrong with them, but children lack the knowledge and experience to understand this. They take the other option by default, thinking that they must somehow deserve, or even inspire such awful treatment.

Imagine how awful that must be: to feel that the people who know you, the people you depend on, the only ones you can depend on, react with displeasure, anger, envy, ridicule, neglect, or a hundred other foul responses to you; and to have no other way to explain it than to conclude that these must be honest, authentic responses to who you really are.

The truth though, is that children do not inspire such responses from healthy, happy, sane people. Generation after generation act out their own damaged formation on their children, and the dysfunction is passed down like a curse, like original sin.

The fact is that most of us don’t really know who we are, because our self-image is inferred from our relationships with others, with the childhood assumption that the feedback we receive from others is honest and authentic.

It’s not.

People don’t really know you. And if your self-image is formed from their flawed and selfish responses to you, then you don’t really know yourself either.

Granted, there are moments of real knowledge and real insight and authentic relationship, but that doesn’t mean the whole can be taken at face-value, especially where there is abuse, neglect, and the kind of dysfunction we might only recognise as mature adults.

I think this is where the desire to know our real self, our inner self comes from. It’s a desire to break from the conventions and continuity that has shaped our false self.

Whether we intend it or not, this desire seems to lead to the deeper self-reflection of the mystics, sages, and saints. The people who have realised the falseness of their conditioned, inauthentic self-image and gone looking for whatever truth lies beneath it.

Incidentally, this is why orthodox Christianity teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin, kept immune from it. So pervasive is the effect of our inherited dysfunction that it required divine intervention to preserve a single human from it.

In this context, it implies Mary’s relationship with God preserved her from a psychological formation corrupted in untold ways by the defects of her own parents. Original sin is more than just bad parental modelling, but the two are intimately related in light of our relationship with God.

These ideas — inherited dysfunction, a false self, a true self, an unfulfilled relationship with God — put into context the need to be “born again” in the model of Christ. In that sense, the symbolism of the incarnation — God born as a child in the humility of a stable — represents the divine born in us.

We hear of being “born again in Christ” so much from a particular brand of Protestant culture, but the mystical tradition speaks of Christ being born in us. As Angelus Silesius, a Franciscan mystic and poet wrote:

“Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until He is born in me.”

 

The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

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The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.