The Elusive “I”

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading rather broadly. I’ve often had three or four — often vastly different — books on the go. Lately, these explorations have taken me to quite a bit of Western, secularized, Buddhist thought. While Buddhism has never interested me in a metaphysical sense, I have long appreciated the wisdom of its basic insights and intuitions into the human condition. One such intuition — the fluid, ungraspable nature of our individual selves — is particularly interesting to me, as it touches on some things I have been pondering for a while.

For me the genesis of these thoughts revolved — as most of the things I write (sorry about that, by the way) — around the interplay in own life between my faith and my sexuality. During those long years of being a homosexual Christian attempting to live my life and live out my sexuality in a way that was consonant with the Scriptures and traditional Christian teachings, I often struggled with the issue of Identity, especially when it came to thinking about the Will. What I wanted was to be married to a beautiful Christian woman and have a family, yet on a deep and visceral level, everything within me told me this wasn’t right, as though I were finishing a puzzle and looking for a specifically shaped piece but the only piece with the right shape didn’t match the picture. Of course, I understood this within a Christian paradigm of having to work out this aspect of my salvation in fear and trembling, and attempting with God’s grace to promote the “True Self” (i.e., the part that wanted what my faith told me was right) over the “False Self” (i.e., the intuitions, the natural inclinations, the visceral sense of right and wrong). But, while it took me thirteen years and a near nervous breakdown to understand it, in hindsight it seems obvious that — short of divine intervention and support (which in my experience and that of millions of others like me is nothing more than a fairy tale) — this can only lead to being torn in two and to complete disaster.  But, the point of this story today is not to rehash my story for the hundred-thousandth time, but simply to demonstrate how this experience left me with a lasting existential question: If “I” “wanted” what I “didn’t want” and “didn’t want” what I “wanted”, if the soul is fundamentally divided in such a way, does the will, and by extension does the self even mean anything?

With this in mind, Buddhism’s deep suspicion about the self rings true for me. When we consider that our memories are in constant flux, that the cells of our body change over time, that our personalities are subject to massive changes due to chemical imbalances, tumors, or physical trauma, or even simply that we grow, change, move, and are constantly taking in foreign substances in our eating and breathing, the concept of the self seems indeed to become increasingly thin and vapid. (As I’ve pondered it, it seems to be reduced to DNA, dispositions, and a story.)

This isn’t of course to say that there is no “I”, that the first person singular doesn’t exist, but simply that much of what we conceive of as a static self is illusory. It isn’t to deny the existence of the ego, but not to be taken in by it, not to be fooled by it, not to take it more seriously than it deserves.

Personally, I find this to be a freeing and empowering understanding. It has helped me marginalize my moods and take my joys and sorrows with a cup of salt.

After all, it’s just me.

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