Who am I? Making Sense and Meaning

by Aiveen Farrelly

The question, who am I and how to make sense and meaning, is one of an existential nature and has been asked since early civilisation. Man has developed concepts and ideologies to try and explain who we are and what is the sense and meaning of our existence. From the Mesopotamians who gathered in tribal groups, living together and farming the land, building mammoth stone structures paying homage to their all powerful heavenly Gods, to Socrates, whom Cicero cited as being the first to take philosophy down from the heavens and into the towns and homes of people, to aid them to live a flourishing life of virtue (Guthrie, 1950). Theology, philosophy and science have all sought to answer, in their own understanding, the true nature of man and the reason for his existence. One path led to organized religion, with its structured dogma and promise of redemption and eternal life. Another offered esoteric teachings on the body and soul, different schools of philosophy giving different interpretations of man and his sense and meaning. Science gave us empirical evidence of the molecular and structural nature and all the rational thinking we needed, reluctant to believe in the realm of the soul. Some would argue that it is in this very realm where the answers to who am l, and what is the sense and meaning of my existence lie. As for theology and philosophy, they both gave us “insights into reality….that can neither be verified nor defined clearly and distinctly” (Pieper, 1992:51). For this paper I shall turn to the existential thinkers for guidance on these questions, while referencing supportive texts. To begin, I look to the five aspects of the self, the spiritual, emotional, sexual, and physical, looking first at the cognitive.

The cognitive self resides in the neo-cortex, the rational part of the brain, and it is this rational part that helps to separate our reality from our experience, to make sense and meaning. Man can be cognitively impacted by such things as bullying, war and educational humiliation to name but a few. Bullying can take many forms, and at its worst can lead to unimaginable brutality. One specific attitude is needed for this type of brutality to take place, the dehumanisation of another, in that “dehumanisation is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’” (Zimbardo, 2007: 307). When confronted by the consequences of dehumanization, the rational part of the mind cannot comprehend what it is witnessing, and provides the relief of dissociation so that, “even though it is happening right next to you, you don’t believe it, and even if you do believe it you cannot dwell on it, it would be the end of you…perhaps this deliberate blindness is a form of self-preservation” (Drakulic, 1999: 48). In times of threatened annihilation, the cognitive part of the self knows that, “you cannot think of death all the time, even when you are living in its shadow” (Drakulic, 1999: 55). In this shadow of death, the battle becomes internalised, the instinct to survive becoming one of the highest order. “I realised that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me” (Ilibagiza, 2006: 100).

But it does not need the brutality of war for the cognitive self to be impacted. Many have been impacted through educational humiliation for example. In ‘Living with Evil’, Cynthia Owen writes, that as she suffered a horrific beating from her teacher, who also happened to be a bride of Christ, she “recoiled in shock when l stole a glance at her. She was purple with rage and was actually frothing at the mouth as she towered over me with the cane raised high.” (Owen, 2000:59). No small surprise then that she was “often scared of asking the most basic questions, even when l got older.” (Owen, 2000:19). Treatment such as this led her to separate her self from her experiences as, “everything looked so normal, but l felt detached, like l was on a different planet from everybody else. I looked around again and felt a wave of loneliness sweep over me.” (Owen, 2000:201). The experiences encountered through life, and how they are processed, affect the development of sense and meaning, both to the internal self and to the surrounding environment. In leaving the cognitive self and I now turn to study the physical.

The physical self can be impacted by, among other things, domestic and physical abuse and war. Home, in an ideal world, is supposed to be our haven, but in suffering abuse it transpires that “home meant horror.” (Owen, 2000:187). This is a truism for people who are abused by their partners or ‘loved’ ones at home. It can be even more traumatic for a woman, for example, to have her abuse witnessed by her children, “they had all stood, Paula and the kids….Paula had wiped her own blood off the kitchen floor.” (Doyle, 2006:14). After her husband’s death, Paula finds that “life without her husband has been better then a life with her husband. Sometimes much better. Most times.” (Doyle, 2006:6). The impact of seeing a parent receive this abuse can then also lead to internal imprinting, creating a pathological pattern of behaviour, perhaps then also choosing a partner that will continue this cycle of abuse. In a physical sense, the body holds on to the experience even if the person has repressed or normalised the memory. Paula’s body became a daily reminder of the abuse she received at the hands of her husband, for she has “old injuries, the Charlo damage, she tries to keep them in the past. The scar on her chin, the pain in her back, the way she had to turn her head when she’s listening to someone.” (Doyle, 2006:92). As one of Alice Miller’s clients wrote, “My body appears to be completely unerring in this respect….my impression is that it knows all about what l went through.” (Miller, 2004:122). The physical self knows very well when it is facing a threat to its very existence. This engagement with the threat of annihilation is at the heart of existentialism, in that “what really matters most to each of us-namely, that you and l must alone face the fact that at some unknown moment in the future we shall die.” (May, 1983:51). With this in mind, I will now turn to examine the sexual aspect of the self.

When researching this paper, I approached the aspects of the self with a holistic view, and in doing so I found a passage in one of Anthony de Mello’s works that I felt best encapsulated the effect of negative impact on the sexual self. “You can live without having lived. People think they are alive because they are breathing, eating, speaking, conversing, and going one place to another. They’re not dead of course. But are they really alive? What does it mean to be really alive? It means three things: being yourself, being now, and being here.” (De Mello, 1998:31). When this vital sexual aspect of the self has been affected by abuse, rape or war for instance, its effect will cascade through every other area of the self, for they are all connected. The senses start to shut down, to desensitize to life, “there was no escape, l felt utterly trapped. I wasn’t strong enough….it felt like the only weapon l had was my mind.” (Owen, 2010:186). Cynthia Owen repressed the memories of her horrific abuse and the murder of her newborn baby saying, “ Looking back, l think l was so traumatised that some sort of self-defence mechanism kicked in, making me shut out the memories so l didn’t have to keep reliving the memories of my past.” (Owen, 2010:262). But even though she had successfully repressed her experiences out of her conscious memory, they did not dissipate, their effect being ever-present, as she wrote, “I never felt happy, not really. Even when l was laughing and joking, l felt numb inside.” (Owen, 2010:256). This describes how sexual abuse can deepen both interpersonal and intrapersonal isolation for the self. In existential therapy, compulsive sexuality, or promiscuous coupling is seen as a common response to overwhelming isolation, a temporary respite from loneliness. It is temporary because it is not real; it is not truly relating to another, it is more using another to meet a need from within. (Corsini & Wedding, 2000). Having explored and gained a deeper understanding of how the sexual aspect of the self makes sense and meaning, I now turn to study the emotional.

Impact on the emotional self can be brought about through emotional abuse or emotional neglect. In the book ‘Perfume’, I could see firsthand the effect of both on the main character Grenouille. From his very beginning he sacrificed an essential part of himself just to survive, “for his soul he required nothing. Security, attention, tenderness, loves….were really utterly dispensable to the young Grenouille. Or rather, so it seems to us, he had utterly dispensed with them just to go on living-from the very start.” (Suskind, 1985:22). In sacrificing this part of himself, he found he did not know himself, and in that unknowing could not love himself either. When man closes off parts of himself in order to survive, he also then disconnects from himself and his experience. He cannot have one without the consequence of the other. This explains why, at times when people’s actions are not compatible with their concept of self they will utter sayings like, “I was not myself”, “I didn’t know what l was doing.” (Corsini & Wedding, 2000). Through suffering the trauma of emotional abuse and neglect, our ability to respond to life is impacted in obvious and subtle ways. (Levine, 2005). Expert on trauma and its effects, Peter Levine writes, “trauma is about loss of connection to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognise…it is the hidden effect of trauma.” (Levine, 2005:9).  This is a mechanism that has saved us, this loss of connection with the self that can make the unbearable bearable. As Owen writes, “my mind hazed over, because l felt something bad was going to happen….my brain just seemed to freeze and close part of itself down.” (Owen, 2010:162). In looking at, who am l-making sense and meaning, I have discussed how the emotional aspect of the self, in conjunction with others, constructs a personal reality that the organism can survive, perhaps at the cost of truth. Acknowledging this I now turn to study the spiritual self.

The impact of dehumanisation is perhaps most damaging to the spiritual self. In its worst form it facilitates genocide, rape and war. In looking at those who commit these crimes I comfort myself with the idea that I would never do these things, that the perpetrators are evil, different from myself. The unpalatable truth is that, the same human being who is able to hold their own newborn with awe and tenderness is capable of killing another’s, if they consider that ‘other’ to be less human. Anthony deMello explains, “our minds create labels and apply them to individuals, saying from now on this or that group is separate. Then we ask people to offer their lives for the defence of the label we create. We call this something glorious like dying for faith; actually they die for conventions and concepts that don’t exist in reality.” (De Mello, 1998:84).  This can be seen in the shadow of spirituality, contained within the interpretive forms of religion, where there can be false answers from false prophets.  Immaculee Ilibagiza hears her former friends and neighbours searching for her after they have murdered other members of her family, her salvation was her connection with God, and finding herself unable to forgive these people she was losing this life-affirming connection. Her answer lay in viewing them as God’s children, and in this she could reconnect with herself through her connection with God. (Ilibagiza, 2006). Herein lies the separation of religion and spirituality, for spirituality is, “being awake, getting rid of illusions. Spirituality is never being at the mercy of an event, thing or person. Spirituality means having found the diamond mine inside yourself.” (De Mello, 1998:67). In the existential view also, the aim is for the self to become aware, to become responsible for herself, while also knowing that one day her ‘self’ will die, the spiritual being in a continual dialectical relationship with her future death, her non-being. For it is a struggle to find the answers to who am l –and how to make sense and meaning of the world.

In conclusion, I turn to the words of Yalom who writes, “throughout life, our surrounding interpersonal environment-peers, friends, teachers, as well as family, have enormous influence over the kind of individual we become.” (Yalom, 2002:63). While these interactions and experiences help shape who I am and by their effect, how I make sense and meaning of my existence, they can also contribute to a disconnection from my self. To ask such deep questions can lead to truths incompatible with our sense of who we are, but they are questions that must be asked, the wisdom of such introspection explained by Socrates, who claimed, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” (Apology, 38a). Yalom writes that the four main concerns for the individual are meaninglessness, existential isolation, death and freedom. (Yalom, 1981). Freedom refers to the fact that the individual is responsible for and the author of her own world, life design, choices and actions. Death is the terrible truth that is known on the deepest level of the organism, the struggle being to exist and live a flourishing virtuous life when we know one day it will end. Existential isolation relates to the simple fact that we are born in this world alone and we shall die alone, regardless of the relationships we form while here. Meaninglessness is perhaps the most challenging to us, with our flawed perception of our importance in the world, we must construct our own sense and meaning in life and hope it will be strong enough to hold us. (Yalom, 1981).

In facing these four concerns and opening up the creviced armour of my psyche, I realise it is only the pain which I cannot share with another that remains unbearable. (Casement, 2006). For authentic freedom I need to be able to confront the limits of my destiny without the fake comforts of dogma or illusion. (May, 1981).This is a challenge too great for some who receive great solace from both. To find your own answer without the structure of religion, the forgiveness of an Almighty Father, can prove too daunting. Nietzsche said that in life, man’s task is simple; he should cease letting his ‘existence’ be a thoughtless accident. In truth, there is nothing simple about this. But like the monk, who keeps a skull in his cell as a reminder of his mortality, in fully accepting my own inevitable fate, I am then free to discover who I really am, the bright light of clarity dispersing shadows in the diamond mine within. The brilliance of my individual uniqueness can then reflect my sense and meaning of what it is to exist, and in doing so provide me with a deeper and more authentic understanding of all that I am and all that  I can be.

                      “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
                       I took the one less travelled by,
                       And that has made all the difference”

( Robert Frost, 1920)

Aiveen Farrelly is a student on the BA in counselling and psychotherapy course in Dublin Business School.

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