Capable Capable
Capable Capable

Strangers to ourselves

"I have been the subject of my time, as powerless to resist as a migrating bird or a salmon swimming upstream.” Claire Tomalin, celebrated biographer and literary editor, born in 1933.  

Just as Tomalin, who acknowledges that she is little known to herself, we have a hard time getting our heads around ourselves. Like water to a fish and air to a bird, we are scarcely aware of the possibilities and the boundaries of the freedom with which we have been normatively situated by our culture.

Happily, we are discovering much about this freedom. Drawing on observation, study and experience, not to say the oral culture of the Autonomy and Life classroom, we are getting to know the natural and cultural underpinnings of who we are as free individuals, as one of many and as Americans. Needless to say, this effort helps us to cope with the ins and outs of existence and more than that, to flourish.

We are apt to make at least one of two mistakes if we don’t make this kind of effort to refine our perspective and understanding of freedom. One mistake: We may take a too narrow view of what has happened in our lives—unable to see that conflicts, wrongs, grief and disappointments weigh heavily on all of us. A second mistake: Insufficiently informed, we may think of ourselves as a relatively omniscient spirit, unencumbered by the indelible stamp that nature, history and language has made on us. 

Having refined our perspective to avoid these mistakes, we find the result not only pragmatically satisfying but also emotionally fulfilling in a variety of ways.

For example, we have come to see how a wrongly understood and lopsidedly subjective self-interest impedes the development of autonomy. As I said in my most recent post, we have come to see that self-determination is not the practice of self-interest wherein social responsibility is a subset, but that the reverse is true. We can see how too narrow a focus would actually (ironically) limit an ability to design and live a useful and fulfilling life.

For another, we have come to see how this narrow focus can make us unusually susceptible to self-deception. This means we’d be apt to make ourselves believe something good—especially about ourselves—that is not true, a mistake that leads predictably to poor decisions and judgments. Indeed, the favorable outcome expected of self-deceived choices leads instead to problematic if not dire consequences.

And another, we have come to see that a lopsided perspective leads to a telling and retelling (if mainly to ourselves) a particular, self-confirming story. Does such a perseverative and repetitive effort get us any closer to knowing who we are—a knowing that would make life less of an exhausting struggle? No. Worse, such a story tends to breed resentment and antagonism toward those who aren’t interested in it or who actually contradict it. Clearly, it’s hard to feel as if one belongs, when one is not taken seriously. But then again, it’s hard to feel as if one belongs, if the story is a wishful fantasy or a defensive cover-up.
As we have discovered, there is a sublime felt pleasure to being conscious and self-aware of the real processing of individual freedom. Like waking from a deep sleep and seeing things clearly for the first time, we feel revitalized, authentic and resourceful. We are more able to make a candid assessment of what we have made of ourselves, (of who we are and who we are not). And in the interest of whom we might yet be, (to be cause in the matter of our lives to flourish), we have been able to make a substantive claim on ourselves. That is, we act not just on our narrowly framed self-interest, but also on our socially responsible individual freedom.
We understand that we are genetically programmed as well as culturally and experientially conditioned to take the form of the autonomous individual that has emerged as central to managing life in America. To make this work, we have focused our ontological philosophy on describing the individuating matrix that provides for our recognition of ourselves, i.e., our self-aware individual consciousness. That is, we attribute our self-awareness to our enculturation of America’s experiment with individual freedom. 

As I’ve posted in the past, this freedom—this self-rule—is a social demand which insists that we be in possession of ourselves, that we individuate in accord with the substantive form universally set in America. Thus, we are subjectively situated to be autonomous, fenced in, socially ordered, responsible for regulating ourselves, empowered to think for ourselves, to live a life of our own design, and secure in this framework, free to flourish.

In sum, no longer strangers to ourselves, more able to learn and create at the highest level at which we can function, we are in a position to better enjoy our lives and to make a difference in the lives of others, even as we look to resolve the practical problems of everyday living. 


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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.