Wednesday, May 6, 2015

We Are Made Up of Stories

It has been a strange day and I should start this post by acknowledging that it has been a strange time.   I have been immersed in literature from mass psychology, sociology, literature on stigmatized identities, and then had the amazing opportunity to hear Neil Gaiman speak.  It has made for a weird stew.  I cannot disaggregate which parts of inspiration came from where, but it is from a lot of streams.  Anyway, these are my thoughts as I am currently thinking them.

I have been thinking a lot about the nature of what we experience as "the self."  It seems to me that the there is that sense of self that I have that says "this is me!" and that it is a construct that I create of myself based primarily upon the stories that I tell myself of who and what I am.  Those stories, and my self that changes with them, are constantly evolving and are essentially based not just upon my experiences and my memories and perceptions of experiences, but on the meaning that I create out of my experiences and my memories of my experiences.

I am constantly creating stories and revising stories and experiencing and living the stories that I tell myself.  All of this activity creates from moment to moment that sense of "me" that I am and it is real, but it isn't a singular thing that can be located.  I think this is what the Buddha was calling anatman.  It is never static but is always changing.  And yet, there is continuity between what was the "me" in the past and what is the "me" of the moment and what will be "me" in the future.  There is rarely rupture but a type of continuity in which I "grow" and my shape changes....which is also constructed in story.

So, this is my sense of my self, what I might consider my "authentic" or "inner" self...changeable as it is.  In magical terms, it is a mutable thought form of who and what I am that is, in an intimate way, linked with my formless self...but the formless self doesn't use language or involve itself in forms.  In the Greek, my constructed changing self would be my psyche (soul) not my pneuma (spirit) which is formless.

There is another self...or many other selves.  Every person who knows me or encounters me creates their own thought form about who Gwendolyn is.  That thought form is created from many raw materials, including  their perceptions and whatever they happen to think/feel/get triggered by in their own stories about who they tell themselves they think they are.  It is created by the disclosure that I have had with them...telling them about my experiences and letting them see my own story about who and what I believe I am.  It is created by their reactions to my story which become a part of their story of who Gwendolyn is.  In some cases, and I have a couple of these in my workplace, the identity that is created for me has almost nothing whatsoever to do with me but is an almost total projection from the creator's own story where they have put my name and face on something that is pretty much all about them.  

So, when someone is trying to interrelate with me, they are not doing so directly (and, of course, vice versa).  What they are really doing (I think) is relating to their created thought form of me.  If what they perceive and what they have constructed is pretty close to how I have constructed myself then there will be places of connection where maybe we can reach past all of the mutual projections and actually touch each other.  This, I think, is that blissful feeling of intimacy, which I think is being seen as you are.  But when there is a mismatch between your inner understanding of who and what you are and what someone else has constructed you to be, there is a deep dissonance.   It feels (at least to me) as an overpowering sense of alienation and is like standing right in front of someone and having them reacting to a dream of themselves while putting your face on it and calling it by your name.  This kind of invisibility is incredibly painful and, at least for me, not uncommon.  It is a lack of alignment between your sense of self and your "virtual" sense of self -aka the "self" that others construct for you.  In some cases, such as the work situation I referenced above, it is impossible to have a conversation because that wall of a created thought form that has nothing to do with me is so strong, that it really is like talking to a wall.

When it comes to constructing the sense of self through stories, I think that what is important is not only attributes (female, witch, psychic, reincarnated ancient Hellene, intellectual) and disclosure of experiences that invite a hearer into the story (telling and hearing a story becomes a shared experience), but also the relative saliency of the various attributes in the thought forms is of great importance.  So, for example, it is very important for many Pagans to emphasize the saliency of their sexual identities as a primary characteristic...for a variety of reasons.  Sexual identity is given a huge priority as a valorized and essential characteristic in most Pagan identity formation.  I, personally, am pretty far on the asexual side of the spectrum.  What this means is that in the stories I tell myself about who and what I am, sexuality has little saliency.  It is barely a part of the story at all.  However, it plays a significantly larger role in the "virtual identity" of Gwendolyn that is constructed by other people and creates a gulf, even if they get the characteristics right.  The point is that the alienating mismatch between the thought forms of the sense of self and the thought forms constructed by another is not only about alignment on particular characteristics, it is also about saliency of those characteristics.

It also can lead to situations in which people don't disclose certain characteristics because of needing to control saliency.  For example, I know people who have rare genetic disorders that are always fatal....but that may take decades to present symptoms and decades of degeneration before the disease runs it course.  If they disclose then they will be "that poor person with x disorder, about whom we are so worried."  That is a human reaction.  The disease becomes highly salient.  The reality is that person could be killed in a car wreck and never experience anything from the illness.  They don't disclose because they don't want this to be a salient aspect of their identity.  Many people who have experienced sexual assault or other trauma don't disclose for similar reasons...they don't want to give it power.

But human beings are not truly independent.  We never are.  We influence each other by the stories we tell....for good or ill.  I am ultimately an optimist and an idealist, but I am a pragmatic idealist.  So, what would say is this...we most often influence each other for ill but have the possibility of influencing each other positively in profound ways.

How many of us have listened to harmful stories we have been told about ourselves and believed them?  We have taken them in and made them a part of the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are.  I know I have.  As an example, I have been told for almost as long as I can remember that I "always exaggerate."  That is my family's line.  (Like that isn't an exaggeration!)   I don't always exaggerate.  I get numbers wrong (hence the weakness that left me open to this story) but the reality is that I am a Truth Teller who says things that are uncomfortable and potentially deeply disruptive. I spent years reflecting back and verbalizing things to my family that they didn't want to hear because they are scary; hence, I am discredited by the stories they tell about who and what I am...namely that I always exaggerate and am overly emotional.  Now the danger (besides being ignored) is that I absorbed this into myself and started telling myself these stories that were constructed for me.  In other words, in this case, I started to doubt my perceptions and my judgement.  I started to tell myself in my own stories to myself about myself that my emotions were clearly out of control and that I couldn't be counted on to judge because I was obviously overly emotional and distorting reality.  Somehow, as horrible as that both sounds and is, it is less scary than being invisible to people you love.  I tried to make my internal sense of self align with the self that was being constructed for me and projected onto me by devastating effect.  I share this as an example because I don't think this is uncommon and I don't think that this makes anyone in my family "bad." I think it is human.  For the record, I have largely healed from this over time and have rejected those stories...and I think my family is finally mostly past those constructions also.  It has taken many years of hard work.  But I share this as an example because I think this kind of thing is common.  Look to the stories people tell you about yourself and don't take on board what you don't really want.

On the other hand, being an idealist, I would hope that maybe when we see something positive in another person that they can't see or that they have lost sight of, we can show them a story about themselves in which the positive is visible and strengthened so that they can broaden and enrich their story about who and what they are.  I hope that there is some hope because that is probably the most essential part of my story of who and what I am.  I am one who hopes. I hope that in reflecting back to people narratives in which they are worthy and powerful and wise and good and can make this world better (based on observations and my own interpretations of when I have seen them exemplify these attributes) that they will incorporate the strengthening of these qualities into the core of their being and make it a stronger part of their identity.  I hope so.  I hope that by consciously telling stories of goodness and striving and triumph that it will happen.  I hope and I hope and I hope.

And I hope that when I am relating to others through the thought forms that I have constructed for them that those forms are both close enough to the stories that they tell themselves about who and what they are that we can really connect, and yet I also dare to hope that I can provide them with some vision to be EVEN BETTER, even more of what THEY want to be so that they can have the chance to absorb that a ripening of their own story, not as my projection.  I want to use my hope to show people a vision of themselves through my interactions with them in which their own highest ideals of who and what they are are made manifest.  I hope that I can purify my own perceptions enough to do this for others.

And I hope that there is someone who can do the same for me.


R. William Ayres said...

This is eloquent in ways I cannot very well describe. I hope it gets read widely, simply because there are important ideas here that need to be considered and grasped and wrestled with. Thank you for sharing this!

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you, Bill. That means a lot to me.

Marcia Coling said...

1) I think we can never completely know all of ourselves, so the stories we tell are as close as it's possible to come.
2) It was hard to read your description of invisibility to another, especially to a loved one, as that has been too often my exact experience. Knowing that "I" as I experience myself am invisible to another who is meanwhile interacting entirely with their own projection of who they think I am/want me to be is incredibly painful. It was amazing to read that written by someone else, so thank you for that.

DDennis said...

This was very enlightening and enriching, and something I have been musing over myself. I've always thought of myself as multi-dimensional, and multi-faceted, (and ever-changing, even moment to moment).

The way you stated everything is (almost) very closely related to the way I've been thinking of these inter-relationships with ourselves and with others, and so I thank you for sharing and explaining it clearly and concisely.

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you for your comment, Marcia. I am sorry that you also experience that invisibility...because it seriously fucking hurts. Thank you for the validation that this makes sense to someone who is not me.

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you, Doreen. I am so happy that this is making sense to more than just me. It's been flying around in my head for days and sorting itself if it makes sense and is useful to others, that makes me very happy.

Anonymous said...

Gwendolyn, Lovely essay.

Identity construction has been a long time fascination and this exploration is as good as any other I have seen. ;-) Human reality is constructed mostly of subjective perceptions (illusions and delusions) woven into a subjective narrative in an attempt to meet our personal needs/wants by assigning subjective meaning. The entirety of human interaction is generated by the level of temporal/saliency alignment between these ephemeral and utterly subjective realities.

Far too few of us even acknowledge the role our own projections plays in forming relationships, much less take responsibility for them. And the stories we tell to ourselves about ourselves are, of course, equally at risk of ego-play/delusion.

It is interesting, i think, to also examine what others' projections reveal about what they think they need from a relationship with me: What role do they need me to play for them and why? And how committed are they to having me fill the role, despite feedback/experience that does not support it? Interesting questions, but any answers are, of course, just more projections. And there is nothing really wrong with that: its what we have to work with. Ha!

I think true intimacy is rare and fluctuates over time, even among those we are closest to. Those closest to us cling hardest to the projection/dream of who we 'have been' in the face of change.

I sometimes think things are deliberately designed this way, as humans cannot abide an absence of mystery. A proof of this, I think, is that as we become more and more transparent to one another in an increasingly information-exchange based world, where people share their every waking thought online, the stories needed to create mystery get more and more extreme - the conspiracy theories gets more extreme, the standards for behavior and the levels at which condemnation/forgiveness is possible get more extreme, etc.

I am rambling. I do like the phrase 'I hope that there is some hope...' and the connected thoughts. I sometimes have trouble keeping hope... but I may be able to 'hope there is hope' more consistently. ha!

-Jim Dickinson

Gwendolyn said...

Jim, thank you so much for your profound and thought-provoking comments.

You are quite right in that examining what people project onto you and what they want in a relationship is a good window into seeing their stories about who they think they are. I'm definitely going to hold onto that and add it into my story about all of this!

I do know two people, both of whom are incredibly psychic AND they are both therapists who are true healers and they are truly remarkable. They are the only two people I have ever known that it feels like they are looking at me through plate glass...and I think that is how they see. I think it is an extraordinarily rare gift...but they have the ability to do what I aspire to do. So, I've seen it and I know it is possible.

I agree with the part where all of this is subjective, but I also believe that all things move from the inside out and the subjective largely creates the objective....not in terms of solipsism - we (humans) are embedded in an objective world that is only partly created by us. I am a Platonist, after all. And these are more stories. I like stories.

Of course, there are other times where I feel like everything is so hyper mediated that I feel like I am in a hamster ball, and that gets upsetting. When I have the existential hamster-ball crisis, all I'm really looking for from another human being is....a strong, well-reasoned logical argument to address the serious epistemological challenge and allay my fears. Is that too much to ask? Hehehehehe...I am difficult. At least I realize it.

I guess given that I am prone to having these thoughts, I don't usually feel the need to intentionally create more mystery, but I agree with you about what you are seeing.

And thank you for the encouragement. Perhaps I will keep writing and externalizing some of these thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing Gwendolyn. I found many places of resonance in your writing. I appreciate that you put your thoughts into such a clear and well constructed, manifest form and I will continue to mull over the story of your stories and the points you've brought forth. Jae

A.A.M. said...

What an important article. I think in the greater Pagan community, this becomes even more pronounced, since we assume archetypal roles ("Priestess," "Healer") and deliberately create subjective identifies by assuming special names to use with each other. I did that for several years, but when the human being behind the "Lady So-and-So" thoughtform needed to come out and be heard, the human being wasn't welcome. No blame on anyone; none of us had awareness of the points you raise in this article. I'll be sharing.

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you, Jae! And thank you, A.A.M. You know, I hadn't actually considered how this is compounded by the fact that we do tend to take on archetypal roles, but as soon as you said that, the feeling of Truth hit. You are absolutely right...this compounds the problem. I do try to be cognizant of the people behind the roles and when I am and am not taking on the "Magickal personality" but maybe we all need to be more rigorous about when we are and are not wearing those thought forms. Hmmmm...I need to think about this even more. Thank you!!!! And thank you, both for the encouragement. I'm glad my thoughts make sense to people outside my head.

Marta said...

This is very well written and thought provoking. So, thank you. One of the things that went through my head as I read this was about each person's reality. The best way I can define this thought is from my work with people with dementia. I began my career working in a closed dementia unit as a recreational therapist. One of the things that I learned quickly to help my patients was to learn about and immerse my self in their reality. To them, I might not be Marta, but a friend from their youth or a relative or any number of other people or things. So working with them in their reality was easier than trying to get them to conform to a reality that no longer existed for them. Umpteen years later, I find myself doing the same with those around me...even those that don't have some form of dementia. I have found it makes it easier for me to understand others when I do this. Now to understand my self better.