Our lives seem to be fragmenting in the face of spiraling polarization and civil unrest. How do we find what’s authentic in this splintered world of wildly different truths? And what if authenticity, in the traditional sense, no longer exists?
I muse on this question as I meditate on an exquisite, little waterfall near my house. The countless, disparate rivulets within it, rushing pell-mell in every direction, remind me of the incessant deluge of information pelting down on us each day—and the multiple realities they imply.
In Mother Nature’s world, none of these individual rivulets represent the truth: it is only when they are incorporated into a whole that they become what they really are: A waterfall.
It occurs to me that it is the same with us: We can either define our lives like a single rivulet, blocking out and opposing all who are different; or stay flexible, accessing and acknowledging all the rivulets, and then constructing them into a coherent whole, as nature has done with her waterfall.
My friend and mentor, Peter Baldwin, psychologist and retired Antioch professor, likes my comparison of my waterfall with the human personality. As he asserts in his book Four and Twenty Blackbirds,1 the notion of a single, unchanging personality is a myth. Instead each of us have multiple personalities, some conscious, some not, each behaving much like a rivulet in the waterfall.
These sub-personalities come to life in various guises in response to particular situations. We can see these contrasting personas play out in everyday life by observing how a person acts differently interacting with her child than her lover or differently with his big boss than with his drinking buddies.
Another example is how the holier-than-thou preacher, who by denying the existence of his sexual persona, ends up acting out his erotic urges by sleeping with members of his congregation.
Just as the waterfall integrates countless, disparate parts into a unitary whole, Professor Baldwin’s book does the same for the human personality: It is a primer on how to identify our various parts, negative as well as positive, and then integrate them into a smoothly functioning whole, a prerequisite for becoming self-actualized and fully conscious.
Society, like the individual, is composed of ever-changing components that must work together to be successful. Robert Lifton, a psychiatrist and big-thinker, wrote a prescient book, back in 1993, on this subject: The Protean Self: Human Resilience In An Age Of Fragmentation.
In it, he writes, “we are becoming fluid and many sided. Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of he past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment. I have named it the ‘protean self’ after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms.”2
Lifton believes that the protean self’s flexibility and buoyancy are essential qualities to cope with the stress of ever-quickening social change, the media revolution, and the looming threat of human extinction. He sees our protean ability to evolve as a positive development, allowing us to find meaning and form in the tumultuous age in which we find ourselves.
The opposite of the protean self, according to Lifton, is the fundamental self, who, as a result of his rigid and hidebound personality, dismisses ideas or facts that might challenge his worldview.
The fundamentalist wants to keep things the way they’ve always been: “he avoids psychological fragmentation by defending the world against evil.”3 This description brings to mind Trump and his war against immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, women—almost every constituency but white males who have, at least up to now, ruled this country.
The New York Times review of Lifton’s book praises him for “not attempting to wrap up the truth in a simple package.” Instead, it says, the protean self “honors plurality and multiplicity, delighting in the partial and inconsistent meanings revealed by disparate forms and alternative ways of life.”4
Looked at this way, especially after Trump, what’s not to like about having more empathy and compassion for those different from ourselves, whether they are our fellow humans or Mother Earth herself?
1 – Four and Twenty Blackbirds: Personae Theory and the Understanding of Our Multiple Selves, by Peter Baldwin, Ph.D : 1997.
2 – The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, by Robert Jay Lifton. Basic Books, New York, N.Y., page 1
4 – ibid.
More from Jean Stimmell can be found here.