Humility and the Fixed Sense of Self (Karl Rosengrant)

When we grow up, we are uncertain who we are, and so we try on different hats. Maybe we tried a fireman's hat, or a cowboys hat or a nurses hat, or any number of other simple identities. We felt compelled to figure out who we should be. We felt compelled to figure out our place in the world and "who" we should be. We felt the need to figure out our place in the world and our purpose. There was a fundamental uncertainty about our identity, and we were compelled to figure out what or who we were. That uncertainty made us uncomfortable.

Later the hats we tried on were more intangible then our possible future professions. We began to seek out knowledge about who we were internally. We might have come to conclusions such as "I am a popular person." or "I am the fastest runner", or "nobody likes me" which is the same as saying, "I am unlikable." All these beliefs either grew into identities or were discarded depending on the evidence which accumulated. If we got beat in a race, we could no longer believe we were the fastest runner.If we thought we were smart and then flunked math we might have to discard that belief and conclude we were not smart. How painful it was to get evidence which invalidated our belief about who we thought we were.

Later we began to draw even more subtle conclusions about who we were; like: "I am smart in spelling but not in math.", or "I am a fast runner, but not the fastest." If you've ever raised kids, you may recall there is a time when they become fascinated with progressions of words like fast, faster, fastest, smart, smarter, smartest.  This is an important part of human development. I think its related to our drive to nail down who we think we are. This process is the development of ego.   Its a process thats probably still going on to this day. Its not a bad process, its a necessary one, but it is one that in the end will create a lot of suffering. Its a process which doesn't end, until we realize on a very fundamental level that we are not a fixed entity.

This process of searching for who we are, slowly subsides as our beliefs about who we think we are become more deeply believed. When we deeply believe we know who we are, the tendency to accept new evidence which contradicts our belief diminishes.  If we firmly believe we are unlikable, then we tend to disregard our experiences where people are nice to us as either an anomaly, or we attribute their behavior as a fault in them. "If they really knew me, they wouldn't like me."

Hidden in every negative self belief, is the hope for the positive counterpart.  Hidden in every positive self belief is the fear of its counterpart being true. "What if I am really a geek after all?"  This is why we tend to avoid those who criticize us, or we discredit their opinions by judging them harshly. "They are such assholes for judging me like that!"   We have a strong tendency to protect our self image by a variety of techniques such as judgments, avoidance, and ignoring people, evidence and circumstances which contradict our fixed sense of self.  One huge tendency is to deny and ignore. 

The word "fixed" seems to be the crux of it. To "know" anything with the mind, we need to find a pattern. (There is another kind of knowing, but the one referred to here is knowing with the mind.) Once the pattern is "known" it becomes solid like water which finds its way to the cup of an ice cube tray and solidifies in the freezer of our mind. All or at least most of our reality consists of solid patterns which we believe in completely. "Thats the way it is."  Our belief about who we are becomes just as solid as the ice cube in the tray.

The problem with this way of seeing the world and ourselves is that the evidence says things are not solid and fixed.  Whenever we are so sure we know who we "really" are,  we are usually in for a big shock. Life has a way of disproving our assumptions in the most painful ways. The valedictorian who flunks out of college, the successful businessperson who loses their wealth in a stock crash. The "loser" who finds the love of their life.

Why is it so upsetting when our beliefs are challenged and overturned?  When we have a positive belief about ourselves which is upset by the evidence of life, there is a short gap where we don't know who we are. This uncomfortable space is usually filled quickly.  What fills that gap is often the hidden belief which had been hoped for or had been dreaded.   Either way, it can be very uncomfortable if not downright terrifying. The person who doesn't believe that anyone would acknowledge their talents is usually very awkward and fidgety when they have to step up the podium to accept the big award.  The valedictorian who flunks out of college may become depressed when they label themselves as a "failure". 

As people enter middle age, they can become more flexible in how they see themselves. (not all do unfortunately)  They can begin to realize that, who they really are has little to do with what they have or what they have accomplished.  People who realize this find out that this kind of "knowing" is an illusion, and is the source of great drama and eventual disillusionment.  People who stop playing the game of needing an identity or continually try to prove themselves to the world, seem somehow more peaceful.  They no longer need to be "right" all the time. They no longer have to pursue activities which keep them in the office late at night every night. They can relax on their front porch and enjoy the birds at the feeder.  They are much more at peace with themselves. This is not because they finally found out "who" they really are, its because they finally realized just how ridiculous the whole process has been. They realize that they can never really "know" themselves anyway.  They finally give in to the fact that they are fundamentally fluid.  They realize that they have the potential to do positive and negative things. They realize that there is the potential for success and failure, to be loved and hated, to be smart and stupid. They also realize that none of those outer pieces of evidence can cause them to be permanently solidified into a definable "thing."  When a person realizes that they are really water, and not an ice cube then the effort required to maintain the deep freeze can end. Its liberating when a person realizes that all that effort is not needed. All the emotional and physical energy spent over the years trying, at first, to find, and then later to defend the solid belief about the self is seen through.

When a person realizes that they really didn't need to "be" anybody, they are free. This is both exhilarating and humbling. To find true humility is not a denigrating experience, it is a liberating one.

simon dennis