February 25, 2012
Building a bed-rock sense of personal identity shaped by “not-perfect-but-enough” does not come easily. For one reason, acquiring this self-knowledge requires us to think and act in opposition to a cultural myth.
Our American culture insists (at least in our public pronouncements) that in this society there are no set perimeters to self-realization. We say that we can become whatever (or whomever) we wish. In this society, we say, anyone can become President, provided that the individual works hard enough. Privately, however, we are likely to add that powerful connections, the gift of gab, and a well-heeled PAC always help. Personally, when not required to follow the company line, we acknowledge that our own life history has taught us that limitations are an inevitable part of the human experience.
At some levels we are rather fond of this idea of limitless possibility as it exists in our cultural mythology. While the idea functions as a cherished, widely-held belief, in fact it reflects wishful thinking. The concept of unlimited individual potential simply cannot square with the process of human development as we presently understand it, and even less with our knowledge of the structure and functioning of the human brain.
These limitations are embedded in complex, interactive factors that are too great to be numbered, many of which lie yet beyond our ability to identify, explain or to control. Nevertheless, most of us understand that we cannot simply decide to be a world-class athlete or musician (or a saint, for that matter), and by our “deciding” make it so.
Indeed, the very act of “deciding” at a conscious level is in some ways an illusion. In his recent book, Incognito (2011), David Eagleman* describes consciousness as the tip of the iceberg that is the human brain. Eagleman goes on to describe what he calls the secret lives of the brain and the astonishing extent to which our sense of ourselves and our patterns of behavior are controlled by activities of the brain that lie beyond our conscious control. Reading Incognito is an eye-opening experience, and can be slightly alarming for individuals highly invested in seeing themselves as possessing unlimited autonomy. And for the individual committed to living in the light of biblical texts, Incognito raises interesting questions about our understanding of the function of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s gift of self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
However disconcerting it may be, it is a fact that all of us carry out our quest for “enoughness” in an environment in which our power to influence and to control is limited. The nature and extent of the limitation may open to debate, but the limitation per se remains very real. Similarly, our search for “enoughness” occurs in bodies in which unconscious processes influence our sense of reality and our responses to a far greater extent than we realize (or may like). In this context our goal of acquiring the bed-rock wisdom of not-perfect-but-enough becomes difficult, but it is not impossible. The challenge—and opportunity—of choice remains, with its risk as well.
Said simply, the first step in self-knowledge requires awareness and acceptance of the limitations of our humanness—acting within the context of understanding that, as an individual, my sense of enoughness must co-exist with the reality of the personally-not-perfect.
How do you define not-perfect in your life? What are your synonyms for not-perfect? Sin? Failure? Just-a-mistake? No-big-deal? Things-to-be ignored? Bummer-don't-talk-about-it? What-everybody-else-does-too?
Thinking with you this week about the temptation to confuse not-perfect with it’s-a-total-disaster-so-I-can’t-do-anything.
I’ll be out of state next week so I’ll see you on March 11.
**David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor University College of Medicine.