“Every person is a sacred mystery.” A few years back, Ron Austin caught my attention with this little statement in a brief talk at Act One: Screenwriting for Hollywood. He was reminding us that each person has an essential beauty and mystery, and that to see each person we meet as sacrament is to heighten the possibility of true understanding, compassion, and love.
I’m reading about consciousness, identity, personality, and behavior modification, along with the daily dose of Bible, and it makes me sit up and wonder over this whole notion of who we think we are. I saw a play at Taproot Theatre last night (Brownie Points, well worth your time and money) trying to help us push beyond racial stereotypes, raising our level of consciousness about what’s often at play under the surface of our interactions. With racial themes, it makes perfect sense to us to try and unpack the various forces at work at any given moment; our own personal biases, family history, current social cueing, geography, economic class, and whatever unconscious factors might be at work.
But what about other, perhaps less obvious areas of concern? In the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, what conscious and unconscious elements are actually at work? Are these stories accurate? Timothy D. Wilson, in Strangers To Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, cites the example of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, who seems completely unaware that he is the bossy, cantankerous, misogynist that he is. And we all know people who think of themselves as kind and loving who are actually something other than that. And frankly, I’ll admit with appropriate embarrassment, I’m pretty sure that some of the stories I tell myself about myself are not quite the truth, though without the help of dear friends willing to suggest some alternative narratives, I’m may well be quite clueless about what the alternatives might be.
The kicker is, I could probably say the same about you.
No disrespect here, we’re all in the self-narrative business, and we’re in it together. And that’s important.
I’m not finished with Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves yet, but one thing he’s very clear about–there is no way to observe the unconscious mind directly. (And I should say very clearly that he is describing something other than Freud’s “sexual repression” version of the unconscious. He uses the phrase “adaptive unconscious” to describe the working of those areas of mind that are dealing with both internal and external influences far beyond the reach of our awareness, of which there are many.) And given that there’s no way to observe it directly, and given that you agree (you may not) that this adaptive unconscious is working on you and helping you choose (or choosing itself) to behave in ways that may not be helpful, the question arises: is there any way to discover how I’m being impacted by these unconscious factors?
His suggestion: infer its influence by observing behavior.
Seems simple enough, but now we’re back to story-telling. Fact: I yelled at person A. My version of story: They deserved it for the following, very rational reasons. Other, truer version of story, told by a third party watching me yell at person A: Jeff doesn’t deal well with rational conflict, and if pushed, will yell ridiculous things at people. Add the fact that he was in a room full of people yelling at each other, and that he walks in a culture filled with yellers, and that he’s just been bored lately and didn’t know it, and that there’s a particular tone of voice person A used that hits him like the bell ringing for Pavlov’s dogs, and so on and so forth, and there were lots of reasons I yelled at person A, none of them rational. The one certain thing? Person A didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.
I look at a lot of flowers this time of year, and I’m always amazed that just looking at a bud, you’d never know what was coming. And I can still get surprised and excited by what blooms. Maybe if I was a horticulturist, I’d get to the place where I’d think I’d know what I was dealing with, but hopefully, nature would step up every once in a while and smack me with something I’d never seen before.
So we have to deal with each other in shorthand sometimes. Life is fast, and we size up and judge and label and stereotype, so that we can get on with things. And sometimes we gulp down the wine and bread, rush our way in and out of the baptistry, mutter our help-us-and-heal-us prayers on automatic, throw away our friends and marriages.
Life is a sacrament, a place where the holy emerges in mystery and rarity. And each of us are particular, peculiar, and amazingly designed vessels to both hold and pour forth that mystery in stories. God help us get those stories somewhere close to true.
Holy ground is not only where you walk.
It’s who you are…