I used to think of the “self” as a sort of blob of dough (poetic, I know). I saw myself as this mouldable, knead-able, cut-able thing--every action shaped me in some way, and I’d imagine it affecting the way the dough would rise, get punched down, rise...The deeper issues of life, like death or mental illness or injury, I experienced as chunks of dough being removed. The idea was that the pain of those incidents was severe enough to take a chunk out. Then the form as a whole would have to be reshaped again to become whole, and I saw this as a healing process.
The thing that I like about this image of a person is that it FEELS right. Every harsh event in our lives feels like we are being broken irreparably. After my first friend died, I remember thinking that my life had shrunk permanently. A piece had been taken out of me, and I was...less. I was less without this person as a character in my story.
The thing that sucks about that image, however, is that if you follow it too strictly, you end up being an emotional paraplegic by age 24, and that’s just not an accurate portrayal of the human condition. I’ve had family and friends die, I’ve become sick (irreparably so), I’ve faced breaking challenges, and I’m not, in fact, any smaller on the inside that I ever was prior to these events, nor am I coated in the scars of their parting.
The other tricky bit about the dough image is that it does very little for allowing other people to see in, which to my eighteen year old self seemed fantastic; all you could see would be the doughy exterior, and all of the bits that formed it were these nebulous outside events that only the dough could recall. That says a lot for a fear of vulnerability, and very little for the reality of people.
I will argue, however, that I got it at least partially correct, because if there is anything that we need a little help with as humans, it’s the accuracy of our self portrayals, and the accuracy of our understanding of others.
People fit dangerously well into boxes of idolisation and demonisation. It doesn’t even have to be these particular markers, though they are perhaps the most familiar; people seem to simply fit well into the categories and images that we create for them. I recall a particular conversation I had with a friend regarding my experience in University several years back. I was explaining to him how I’d felt incredibly isolated--all of my friends were in fact my brother’s friends also, and tended to view me as my brother’s “little sister”. This image isn’t so bad from an outside perspective; I am very proudly my brother’s sister. But consider the consequences. I struggled to feel I could talk to these friends honestly because there was an expectation as to how I’d behave. I didn’t feel like I could tell them that I was breaking down after the loss of a friend. And when I fell for one of them, I was rejected on the basis of being his friend’s sister, a label I simply could not seem to escape. The effect was tremendously isolating, even though the categorisation was not intentional or malicious. It was simply automatic; our categorisation is an intuitive, and so dangerous, thing.
Additionally, I had a ridiculous amount of trouble expressing myself accurately, because I couldn’t understand the perception of the viewer. I think this is a problem we all share (unless I’ve got this one wrong, too). I still have issues with the idea of self portrayal. I have differing groups of friends, and I become nervous at the idea that maybe the person I am around one group is the “real” me, and that somehow the way I am in another group is a “false” me, or at least, I worry that it will be perceived as such.
In reality, the “me’s” that vary are from varying experiences with the people in each group, and here is where we step into illumination of ourselves to others. We can only gain real insight into another person, beyond our categorisation of them, if we allow ourselves to have emotional experiences alongside them.
So try on this image for size. We enter the world as vessels coated in a two way mirror, with a world reflecting itself upon us, giving us actions we can see from the inside, without understanding fully the reflection on the outside. And so we see the reflection of other people in the same way; we are looking at our understanding reflected off of them, creating an image of them for ourselves.
Ah, but then those moments of illumination. We experience together, grow together, and our internal lights turn on... and suddenly, still through a haze, we see the insides of our human partners. We reveal ourselves to the person looking in on us. When the flashes of illumination fade, the new impression does not...and so it informs our reflection of the other person. We are all just one pane of fragile privacy away from understanding and knowing each other.
I like this image better than the dough, because instead of experiences ripping us apart, they reveal a true side of ourselves. And the more light we find shed upon our insides, the more potential we have to create that illumination in others. This, to me, speaks to the resilience of the human spirit; that those shattering events are in fact acts of potential, and that through all of our pangs and heartaches and joys, we continue to reach to connect.