The Meaning of Person

By Maeve Lewis

Director of New Day Counselling Centre

The notion of “person” and what it means to be a person has interested people since the beginning of time. What becomes very clear from reading in the areas of philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology, is that the meaning of person changes over time, both in terms of the social construction of personhood and the individual experience of self. This reflects changes in economic and social conditions, with the consequent shift in the demands a particular society places on the individual, and the development of powerful cultural and ideological forces which influence the intrapsychic experience of each person in terms of how they see themselves and their relationship with their society. This creates certain difficulties in attempting to give an account of “person”, because I have to accept that my understanding, experience, and beliefs are not really “mine”, but are instead a complex interplay between what may be unique to me and what has been determined by my being alive in the late twentieth century. The point in time is central to this difficulty, since we are living in a period when many of the old certainties of the mechanistic Cartesian dualistic model of being have been challenged and dismantled, and a new paradigm is slowly evolving, based on an awareness of the essential interrelatedness of all phenomena.

The meaning of person therefore becomes a process of synthesis, incor­porating a concept of the person as experiencing self as unique, separate, bounded and yet intrinsically linked with all other individuals and beyond that to all of existence. Developments in physics teach us that we are pure energy and that our sense of separateness is an illusion, yet the essence of personhood is bound up in that illusion.

It is at the level of the biological that our sense of separateness is most clear. Most people have a definite sense of where their physical being ends and the rest of the world begins. It is the essence of being human to be embodied, and we measure the lifespan in terms of a person’s inhabitancy of a physical presence. It is through our bodies that we perceive and experience the world. The very way we think, the constructions we place on reality and the limits to our consciousness are determined by our physiological frame­work.

In the western world, we think about our bodies as being separate from mind and spirit, and this mind-body dualism informs our medical and psychiatric practice and our approach to self. Contemporary holistic approaches are reconstructing this model into an understanding of the body as being inherently interlinked and connected to other aspects of self, and the influence of the emotional, intellectual and spiritual on the physical manifestation of self is at last being recognised. The deeper intrapsychic experience of self is reflected in our bodies, and many of the physical diseases of the West are inextricably bound up with a more profound dis­ease. In this perspective the body and the spirit become simply different manifestations of the same thing, and the split ceases to have any signifi­cance. Yet this split is deeply embedded in Western consciousness.

Human physiology and neurology shows the beauty, the elegance and the wonder of the living being, and for me creates a sense of awe at the meticulous interconnectedness of all the systems which make up the human body, which is the substrate of self. The mind-body split denigrates the physical aspect of being to something less worthy, less developed than that of spirit, and infuses the physical with an aura of distaste and sinfulness. Biological urges are seen as somehow base and unworthy, particularly in the area of sexuality. Yet asceticism is not the calling of most people, and the conflict between the ideal of abstinence from physical pleasure and the pull towards physical satisfaction has engendered a profoundly held belief in the imperfection of our personhood.

Our gender too is determined in the first instance by our physical attributes. Cultural constructions of gender are based on the biological aspects of female or male. Being a woman, in particular, is closely linked to the female reproductive process and the attempts of society to control those processes. The woman is defined through her body, and for many women a sense of self is measured against some social ideal of physical perfection.
Very few Western women are at ease in their bodies, but rather are engaged in a battle to reshape their physical self into whatever is the current ideal. This physical unease may be seen as a metaphor for the difficulty of experiencing an authentic integrated self in a society which while insisting on the division of body and spirit, defines women primarily in terms of their biological functions.

To be a person is to be embodied, and while the weight of Western thought has influenced us to distance ourselves from this aspect of our personhood, our struggles with the limitations of our embodiment provide many possibilities in helping us to understand who we are. It is after all at the level of the physical that we notice the passage of time most acutely, and are prompted to reassess our lives in the growing awareness that human time is finite. It is at the physical level that we have to confront as in­dividuals our own weakness and mortality. It is physically that we also express our deepest levels of connection to each other through loving sexuality, bearing and giving birth to children. I do not wish to imply that these events are not also cognitive, emotional and spiritual; but they are strengthened in their impact by the immediacy and inevitability of the physical. Thus, part of what it means to be a person, is inextricably linked with an acceptance of embodiment and all that means, and it is at this level that paradoxically we are most separate, and yet most joined in our common humanity.

The person is an innately social being. It is in our relations with other people that we attempt to express who we are, and understand who is the other. From the moment of our conception, we are involved with other people, and in our early years our very survival depends on them. Our dilemma lies in being pulled in two opposite ways: towards autonomy and independence on the one hand, and towards attachment and intimacy on the other. I believe we are profoundly influenced by our early attempts to accommodate these opposing forces, and that who we are is hugely influenced by our relationship with our families. Our sense of self can be damaged by our experiences in the womb, at birth and in childhood. Damage to our sense of self can occur even where no malice is intended, simply through lack of parental awareness of the child’s need for un­conditional acceptance and projection of the parent’s own damaged self. This interferes in turn with our ability to relate, as we try to hide from our awareness that which we deem unacceptable about ourselves, and project our hurt onto others. Where active abuse is involved, the sense of self is further undermined. Damaging child-rearing practices across generations mean that abuse is far more common than we would like to believe. Sadly, too often still from the very beginning, our sense of self is deformed by our social experiences, and this is reflected in our social expressions of self.

This undermining of self is exacerbated by an educational system which emphasises intellectual development at the expense of all other personal attributes. But of course both the family and school are societal agencies of socialisation. Since the vast majority of people live adult lives of disempowerment and economic disadvantage, it is not in society’s interests to promote patterns of child-bearing, child-rearing or education that are concerned with the full development and empowerment of human beings. Powerful social norms have arisen which ascribe restrictive roles to people on the basis of gender, class and race. Notions of normality further restrict individual expression of the self and the self’s reality, and attempts to deviate from what is acceptable result in subtle or overt social control. At its extreme, this results in the ascription of insanity to people who dare to challenge the prescribed definition of reality. Thus the person is confined and restricted in what is deemed to be acceptable, and is confronted with socially constructed notions of what is worthwhile or valuable. The structures we have evolved deny most people access to the resources which make such social goals attainable, but we deny and ignore this and instead ascribe personal pyschological or moral deficits to those who cannot attain the normative goals of society. People tend to internalise social judgements of themselves, and the sense of self which has been damaged in the family is reinforced in its negativity by the wider social context.

The extent to which violence, abuse and neglect pervade our interactions with each other reflects the conditions under which we operate. And yet we have to accept that society is not a structure with an autonomous ontology, rather it is an expression of the aspirations of a group of people, reflecting something that is inherently of the person. Society tells us something of the darker aspects of a person, where individuals are content to prosper at the expense of others. Being a person implies a responsibility to address the injustices which are staring us in the face. But most of us view the poverty, despair, violence, discrimination and alienation of our world from a position of helplessness, reflecting the woundedness to our integrity and autonomy of self inflicted by our experiences.

Yet I do not believe that our current situation is the only expression of what a person is capable of creating in personal and societal relationships. It is simply that in the Western world at least we have created a system which does not allow that human potential to be expressed. Within the system, many people are able to develop loving and mutually satisfying relation­ships but it is in spite of rather than because of the social order which pre­vails. Humans have shown that the potential is there to express loving, caring aspects of person even under the most adverse circumstances. And perhaps it is only in our attempts to relate fully with others that we begin to understand and reclaim the woundedness of ourselves. This may be some­thing we have forgotten in the particular way in which a search for self has preoccupied us in the West.

It is in our own self-awareness and self-relateness that lies the core for what it means to be a person, and it is upon this that all our interactions with the world are based. In my own self-awareness, I have come to realise that my consciousness is tiny and limited in comparison to what may be avail­able to me personally, and to humanity in general. I now distrust my aware­ness, because I know that the awareness which is ordinarily available to me does not include autobiographical material, perinatal and transpersonal experiences which seem equally relevant to who I am as a person or self as a force made up of emotions, intellect, embodiment and spirit all directed, however obliquely, towards a search for the core of me which has been lost or hidden or maybe never known.

It is as if intuitively we know that there is more than than we know. However, the movement towards self is one which is difficult and fright­ening, and may be beyond the courage of everybody. In our current reality, our impulse may be to ignore or avoid the self-knowledge which is the route to person, but which leads us through the dark places from which we have learned to detach and dissociate. This dark land is the place of our self-loathing, our deepest passions, our terror, our rage, our hatred, our help­lessness, our despair. It is a dangerous place, because we can lose our way and wander there forever in the miasma of depression, anxiety, hope­lessness, alienation. If we have learned from our earliest times that we are essentially good and acceptable as we are, then perhaps it is easier to accept this dark place in ourselves as part but not all of who we are. Since most of us have not had this experience, then it is terrifying to look at this part of self, because we fear that this is truly who we are and all that we are. We find endless ways to shield ourselves from self-knowledge, and thus move further and further away from our core, living a false version of self. This false version is usually one whom we believe will be acceptable to others, one that perhaps we would like to be, but somebody we are not.

The person is a feeling being and the range and depth of human feeling is immeasurable. We are capable of experiencing the highest ecstasy and the deepest despair, with infinite shadings and possibilities in between. Yet my own experience and I suspect the experience of most people, is that of trying to confine the experience and expression of feeling to a narrow band. But I have learned that I cannot control my darker, unacceptable feelings – if I try to, they will erupt and damage myself or somebody else. It seems to me that it is in this aspect of person that the genesis of evil lies. It is not that the urges and feelings are in themselves evil, but rather that in our attempts to deny and repress them, we end up acting out of them with resultant irrespons­ibility and possibly dire consequences for others. We label people or groups as evil, but I believe that we all have the capacity for evil. In our refusal to face this, we are fuelling the myth that some people are just plain evil, and the archetype of the evil one can be found in every human culture. This conveniently allows us to feel complacent and good even though we have a suspicion that we are not. One of the vital tasks of personhood is to find a way safely to acknowledge the hidden feeling self, work with this shadow, and move through it. There is huge liberation in this and an emerging ability to be more authentic, more genuinely one-self than ever before.

As a person grows and develops, there usually comes a time when their previous certainties and values seem to become less sure. For many people this happens around the middle of their life, but may happen earlier if life has been particularly challenging or difficult. Instead of a crisis time, I see this as a time of opportunity, when the person is creating the possibility of letting go of the external checks and ideals by which they have lived their life and can move closer to their core identity. This can create a much deeper sense of what it is to be a person, and free a person from the imposed roles and obligations of society. Jung has called this process individuation, and it is a process which is perhaps more an aspiration rather than a reachable goal. But in a sense the struggle towards this goal is what is in essence the person: to reach it would take us beyond what it is to be human.

As we answer the deeper call to become who we are, we often experience a sense that as we move towards the core of ourselves, we are also moving into a different dimension. It is as if at the time we are becoming most uniquely, essentially ourselves, we begin to recognise the illusion of separateness most fully. In the glimpses and fleeting experiences I have had of this dimension, my ability to see my connection with all things has profoundly shaped my understanding of what it is to be a person. I have come to see each person as a microcosm of the entire universe, with all the possibilities and potentials encapsulated within. Our uniqueness is an expression of a particular possibility or potential, within the framework of the experiences of life has created for us (or we have created for ourselves) and the choices we have made within this framework. This is truly freeing, since it takes away the necessity to judge self or others, but instead to look with compassion on what we have made of ourselves, knowing that even the most appalling manifestations of evil or darkenss are never irredeemable. It is also frightening, since it means I can never say, “This is it. I need do no more.” I am obliged to continue always growing in my consciousness and understanding, and becoming ever more responsible for the choices I make and the things I do.

I think that essentially the person is a lonely being. While an awareness of connection enables us to find purpose and meaning in who we are, we are alone in our core as we try to find our way. We may find support in our search for self, but in the end it is each one who has to find their own way. I find this very difficult to accept, and yet it is something I have always known. Ultimately, no one can know my way except me. And my meaning is to find my way and follow it, as it leads me away from crowded charted paths and into the unknown. And for me, that is the meaning of person