Meaning and self

Thinking about what it means to be a person. I am sure that all our attempts to deal with this up to now have come to nothing because we have concentrated on individuality, or rationality, or moral freedom. In every case the underlying assumption is that the person is an independent and rational being free to make moral choices. We have not been aware of, or have ignored, the central and most fundamental fact that first a person is a nexus of relationships. Person only has meaning in the context of relationship. A person is he who relates to another person. Without the relationship with others the individual cannot evolve into a mature person, cannot learn a language to articulate thoughts and feelings, etc. We need to explore the dimensions of personal being – the physical, biological, mental, social and spiritual. Unless a person is an athlete, or something similar, he does not usually attend to the physical and biological unless something goes wrong. Nor in our Western culture does the spiritual impinge much on our consciousness unless we have what Maslow called a peak experience, or we experience what Jaspers called a limit situation. Most of the time we alternate between our private mental world and our social environment. It is mainly in these two contexts that we look for meaning. For some people the spiritual dimension is also a factor but very often I fear this spiritual dimension is a mental construct rather than the real thing. By mental construct I mean a system of beliefs and practices centred on the self and significant others. God and the rest of humanity are placed on the periphery. This is the spirituality of novenas and miracle working statues of the Madonna, of auras and crystals and intervening angels. We will never discover what it means to be human from such a myopic self-centred perspective.

Meaning will be found not by looking at the individual but by trying to understand the complex relational processes, those which make the individual what he is and those of which the individual is a part. As long as we can only see from the individual self-centred perspective we will never understand. Only when we realise this can we understand why self has always been seen as a barrier and a hindrance to spiritual progress. Perhaps ‘understand’ is putting it a bit too strongly. We will probably never really understand, but we can, and we need to be aware of these processes. To begin to be aware of them is to begin to decentre the self. For such a feeble reed the self does take up an inordinate amount of space and try to dominate every perspective. Get him out of the way.

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