Reaching for our selves

Hi all. I’ve been trying to write a post to follow up on the self-narrative post I put up last. I’ve found that a certain paradox stands in my way. The pull toward a coherent self-narrative is so strong. Partly because, from the outside, we look like a single person. And where do we learn how to see ourselves? From the outside. From the perspective of others. From our parents and caregivers, while growing up, starting in earliest infancy. Oh, isn’t he cute! (Not aren’t they cute!) These others who love me, they see me as a single person. So that must be what I am. Also, we feel like unified beings in the sense that we have one body. Just one. When any part of me is in pain, it’s my pain. It belongs to a unitary me. When I die, it’s all of me that dies.

Picasso –self-portrait across the lifespan

Yet the reality looks different from inside. There’s so much going on in “me”. Last post I observed that there seem to be multiple self-narratives. This is especially obvious, and maybe especially extreme, in addiction. The classic version is “the addict self” versus “the good self” or “caring self” or…what have you. When I was an addict, it was pretty straightforward. I was a good student by day, then I’d become Robin Hood when it got dark, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor — i.e., me! Each part had its own history, its own motives, and its own — highly contradictory — goals.

Should we think of these as incompatible self-narratives, and view each as separate, with a sort of life of its own, yet worthy of acceptance and compassion? Should we stop trying so hard to unify them? Because sometimes…you just can’t. They simply don’t fit. And the effort to weld them together can be overwhelming, soul-destroying, can leave us feeling more fragmented than we already were. The infamous “dry drunk” is one victim of this misguided struggle.

That’s what I suggested last post…along with an “uber-self” who’s pretty hard to define. Yet I’m not sure it’s right. Maybe we have just one, or just one main, self-narrative — this is who I am, this is who I was, this is who I want to become.

Or who I expect to become — a very different way to frame a future self!

Maybe the project is indeed (as the psychologists and philosophers claim) to make that self-narrative coherent. Maybe that’s the job. It’s just that there are aspects of the self, parts of the self, that don’t fit. Wanting to get high, choosing to get high, being determined, being defiant about getting high. (Even in the world of “normies,” there are parts that don’t fit the narrative.) Maybe it’s best so see these as strands of the self-story that truly aren’t compatible with the rest. Maybe they are “clips” (when we actually bother to see them at all), but not self-stories per se. In fact, maybe their incompleteness reflects this. Maybe those strands are “doomed” to remain incomplete.

(By the way, if you doubt the diversity of self-images, cover one half of the face above, then cover the other half. Did you see the same person? Think about the two halves of your brain — they process things very differently.)


Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this and trying to come up with something like a resolution. (I’ve always liked to create theories or models, but they have to be — guess what? — coherent.) I’ll let you know if I get any closer.

Meanwhile, Isabel sent me this powerful and beautiful poem, so I (we) want to share it with you. It seems to show that desire, in reaching too far for completion, finds that which cannot cohere.

Letting the Emptiness Become My Government

Within me, the sipped, iced bourbon enacts
the sense of a slow, April rain
blurring and nurturing a landscape.
Decades I’ve been pipe-dreaming of finding
a life as concise as a wartime telegram.
Ultimately, I’ve ended up compiling
an archive of miscommunication
and the faded receipts of secondary disgraces.
In third grade, a friend’s uncle stole the two dollars
from my pocket as I slept on their couch,
and later he must’ve hurried into the night
toward a flat in the nearby building
where a newly minted narcotic promised
to evict the misgivings from all riled souls.
I told no one of the theft, letting the emptiness
become my government, my friend’s
mother counting her food stamps while we walked
the late-morning blocks to a bustling grocery,
within which she eventually smacked
the hopeful face of my friend as he reached
again for too costly a thing.

  by Marcus Jackson


17 thoughts on “Reaching for our selves

  1. Joanna "Nicci Tina" Free April 2, 2019 at 7:20 am #

    Marc, I’m both tired and awake at 4am, caring for an aging relative whose sleep patterns are not at all like my own. Respite will come, meanwhile I am also awake for the delivery of your blog, and thankful to you, Isabel and Marcus for the depth and tenderness of it. It brings to mind the gratefulness I feel for a life that is examined, for choices considered, and for the opportunities – the community, the learning and guidance – to create new patterns, to make new choices. No more stealing from my own health, wealth and light, not if I can help it, anyway. No more smacking the face of one, within or without, who dares to want more.

    Thank you.

  2. F.A.K.Nasser April 2, 2019 at 8:44 am #

    I like this candid post , it is very hard to unite all aspects in oneself
    in an attempt to make it coherent. I like the honest poem
    by Marcus Jackson it reflects the then naked reality. I was moved by an essay in the
    New Yorker , I really want you to read carefully the following
    Hope you send us your opinion!

    • Chad Davis April 2, 2019 at 10:19 am #

      What a great article! I normally don’t reply, as what is my two cents worth … however I felt compelled as the article highlighted one of the key issues with our WHOLE medical treatment program (in my humble opinion) ~ we “blame” something and then medicate it. Yet, never look deep enough to figure out WHY the “thing” needed to be medicated to begin with so THAT could be treated as well. Pills ~ in my own understanding ~ can be great for acute issues and short-term chemical support … but that’s it! The same with alcohol, speed, pot, or whatever the flavor of the night/day might be. Tie one on, fade out, get the focus and energy and the “issue” has been “patched” for the moment. I see it as patching a bullet wound so you don’t bleed to death on the way to the hospital. The issue, again in my opinion, and much like the article points out is ~ “we” (the helping profession to be included) doesn’t take the time to dig the bullet out … as we are not currently bleeding to death anymore. Just my two cents. Great post and great addition! Keep it up 🙂

  3. Annette Stewart April 2, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

    Thank you, Marc, for a questioning and evocative post and I loved the poem! I can’t describe myself as whole, because how does that allow space for consciousness beyond the bounds of my brain? But I do describe myself as healing: healing from my expectations and others’. When I can stop the judgment, which is tough, because it’s all around me and embodied in our cuIture, I like to see myself as a constellation, because only Nature really is home and enables me to see ME with any clarity. My planets shine at different times, each one an expression of my persona, held by space/time in my Milky Way. I meet others in their own space/time, knowing it’s likely that they will be somewhat different when I next see them – scary and comforting. Nothing is really fixed, is it?

    The Milky Way always knows its way home, and is deeper and wiser than any manmade substance: sugar, drugs, booze, porn, shopping, gambling and short-term pleasures.

    Mindfulness enables me to tap into the way home these days.

    • Larissa Goruk April 2, 2019 at 2:41 pm #

      I read that article yesterday too. It’s amazing how much remains not understood about the mind/brain. I’d like to come off zoloft even after being on it for many years. I did try a few years ago with the guidance of my family doctor. Shaving off 50 mg per month, but when the dosage got down to 50mg per day, I couldn’t move physically or mentally. Everything was heavy and dark, no point in living. So I went back on to 250 mg per day. It’s OK for now but I look forward to some day being able to go off it.

  4. Daniel April 2, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    So reassuring to myself that creating the ultimate coherent self-narrative from the multiples of self-narratives eludes us all, even you, Marc. Thanks for your words of guidance.

  5. Eric Nada April 3, 2019 at 11:36 am #

    Marc, love this candid piece. One of my favorite quotations is by Albert Einstein, “The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.” I think that this quotation speaks to both general emotional health as well as addiction recovery (which in the long-run is also about general emotional health, I think). I like it because there is such a tendency to see the idea of “self” as the part of us that if adhered to and believed in, will bring us happiness. And there is certainly a level at which this is true, and developing a coherent view of “self” is so important at that level. I also think that satisfying the urge to develop a coherent sense of “self” makes it easier to see past it, eventually. Owning the idea of “self” makes it easier to put the idea of “self” in its place, so to speak. In a way that we can own it without being owned by it, that it can serve us without us serving it. And this fits into my own struggle with addictions directly because what I was really attempting to do was bring myself a feeling of transcendence through my additions. Not so much a transcendence from the the self but a transcendence from the tyranny of the self narrative. Without being aware of it I was trying to live forever lifted from my own painful humanity–but being human this was obviously impossible. I’d better stop now before I get too out there (or is it way too late).

    • Karen April 3, 2019 at 9:48 pm #

      “I also think that satisfying the urge to develop a coherent sense of “self” makes it easier to see past it, eventually.”

      I love this. It reminds me a little bit of buddhism.

      what I interpret from what you are saying, and it might be way off, is that you were trying to live only in the light while denying the dark, but we are both sides of the coin. When we ignore/stuff/deny our shadow it only gets bigger and bigger.

    • Sandy Loyall April 5, 2019 at 5:02 pm #

      Thank you Marc. And I love your Albert Einstein quote Eric. Another of my favs is by an uneducated Scottish welder, Sydney Banks, who had a powerful flash of insight, “All you have to know is everything is created from thought. You don’t have to know anything else.” Narrative is made of thought. I’ve written a short article about how this relates to addiction and habits, you might find it interesting?

  6. shelley April 3, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    Exploring the concept of No Self or Emptiness as taught by The Bhudda has been extremely beneficial for me in regards to ‘finding myself’. Which after a lifetime of searching I am coming to see does not exist the way I once thought it did.

    And what a relief it has been because maintaining that self, that ego was exhausting. Namaste

    • Chad Davis May 12, 2019 at 5:54 pm #

      Hey Shelley,

      I just wanted to echo your idea! It was Buddhism and Taoism that helped me to stop “trying” to be me and simply “be” me … which is what ultimately ended my addiction 🙂

      Have a great day!


  7. Karen April 3, 2019 at 9:56 pm #

    This concept is super interesting to me.

    Maybe we are like a tree. We have the roots and main trunk with various branches. As a narrative no longer works, we divert resources to the other limbs or even end up sawing off the limb completely. When we saw off a limb, as it was a part of the tree, it has left its mark, but with it gone we get to send nutrients to other limbs…
    That said, if a branch is sawed off, this does not mean one can pop up on another part of a tree.
    I feel like I could go deep with this analogy.

  8. alison April 5, 2019 at 11:02 pm #

    I like the tree imagery.
    In the poem, the boy is slapped in the face for having desire?
    Does not society limit our desires so young, hence we learn early on to hide them, suppress them, for fear of getting slapped in the face?
    Hence addiction emerges, becomes necessary to survive in a society that says we must control ourselves?

    So I think maybe it’s society that prevents us from knitting our narratives together?
    Aren’t the narratives that don’t “meet” societal expectations the hardest to weave in?
    So like you said Mark maybe it’s best to let them float seperately, like lilies in a pond. Since a pondful of lilies are pretty.
    I don’t know if pond lilies are connected under the dark pond water? I think some are interconnected plants, but you can’t see into that dark pond water…so they all look seperate from the surface.

  9. jorgekafkazar April 6, 2019 at 12:20 am #

    Good to see a recovery blog that is still functioning. Thanks for keeping the ball rolling.

  10. Shelagh April 8, 2019 at 3:16 pm #

    Coherence, congruence. A narrative. I want it. My life experience connects in ways that is not that. I don’t quite fit. I have never met someone who fitted. What is lost and what is found? The desire to find the answer is the problem.The desire to find a resolution. What if we said there isn’t a solution. What if we asked what is at stake if we don’t find a resolution. What then?

  11. Brian Carlson April 14, 2019 at 2:51 pm #

    I think our answers to the questions posed about coherence or many selves or the quest for wholeness will always be provisional. They are stories, patterns we find in the complicated strewn matter of our experience, history and perspectives. If I look at the stars I may string together various stars and imagine them to create shapes that might be the body of a bear, or a dipper…or choose other stars and configure a different pattern , impose some story or image on this and in like manner, it seems we fabricate these stories about our selves…our our self. Time adds another dimension. Am I who I was at four, fourteen, forty or is this 64 year old just a current version? Am I all these selves I have been or are they gone? Reportedly Buddha was once asked, “Who are you?” His answer was, “I don’t know.” The answer seems at once simple but profound, whether or not he actually stated this. “I,” this sense of a unique self we seem to have or have come to largely accept in the past many centuries, does not have that answer through knowledge. I does not know…would be a more accurate way of saying this, however awkward in English. Or, I can not answer this through knowledge. And so, perhaps the question, “Who are you, or who am I,” are answerable in a different way. This “I” is limited to stories, to finding the dragon or the god in what appears from this perspective to be a grouping of stars….stars that in fact could be untold distances apart from one another. Perhaps the answer has more to do with our effect or the effects of our decisions in life, from the most mundane, “Do I wait to hold this door open for the stranger behind me as I pass through or just let it swing and be on my way,” to central missions or projects in our lives, to the manners in which we impact others, both those close to us directly and those who are distant from us as well, and to our part in a collective movement, a river of humanity as it surges where it will. And that story, that definition of who we are, we will never know in full or even in large measure. Certainly it seems to me that our real effect upon the world is more significant than our stories about who we imagine we are. Nice blog…interesting thoughts.

  12. John Runnion April 18, 2019 at 8:28 am #

    What i find interesting is the rather unexamined cultural emphasis on the existence of a “self,” “true self” and or “authentic self.” Does this exacerbate the phenomenon of “self-loathing” that surprised the Dalai Lama so much? Buddha seemed to suggest the issue is more or less perceptual and de-emphasized “self” and “non-self.” How would this change the psychological approach to self-narrative and the Western insistence of cohesiveness?

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