It’s all about me – a worldview

I just finished Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd (author of The Secret Life of Bees) and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. It’s a mother-daughter memoir where chapters alternate their perspectives. I enjoyed reading it very much and related to it quite well. In the book, Sue is dealing with the changes that are happening in her own life as she ages into menopause. She is also trying to understand and adapt to the change in the mother-daughter relationship that will allow her to “let-go” yet stay an important person in her daughter’s life.

I can relate to so very much of this.

But reading this book was a jumping off point for me to wonder about something else, and that is our society’s emphasis on the self.

In one part of the book, Sue mentions a workshop she co-led called Maiden, Mother, Crone. “It wasn’t about chronological phases in a woman’s life,” she writes, “but about an internal process of becoming.” She mentions that she invited her mother to the workshop. Which in turn, made me think of my own mother and that started the ball rolling in my mind, like a game of mousetrap where one unrelated action eventually leads to a series of others.

Traveling with Pomegranates is about finding a “self” or re-acquainting with a “self,” both as it relates to a young woman about to embark on a marriage and career, and an older woman facing her mortality. I’ve read a lot about this in menopausal literature—rediscovering your self. And I’m not criticizing the concept. I just wonder, when did my mom have the time or the chance to do this? My mom went from maiden to mother and basically got stuck there for 51 years taking care of Annie. There was no journeying back to her “self.” Then when Annie died, Mom became a full-time caregiver of my dad whose needs were escalating because of Alzheimer’s.

I think it’s worth noting that our civilization did not always place an emphasis on individualism, or talk much about the self. That’s a fairly new concept that showed up around the 19th century.  One of the most interesting things I did while earning my English degree was take a required series of four “Age” classes. Beginning with the Age of Faith, then the Age of Protest, followed by the Age of Ideology and ending with the Age of Uncertainty, this series of classes looked at philosophical ideas and historical events that were the cause and effect of each other and that influenced the progression of Western Civilization from the beginnings of Christianity through modern times.

For a while Christianity was the center of everything in Western Civilization. You don’t have to take my word for it, just go wandering through an art museum sometime. This reliance on faith was shaken after the 15th century when religious, intellectual, and political protests erupted. The void in ideology these protests created resulted in an age of ideology where different world views were tried out: liberalism, nationalism, and communism. But none of these filled the void of a unifying ideology that had been in operation during the age of faith. So civilization entered into an age of uncertainty. This age, exemplified by people seeking power, was destructive and dehumanizing, as evidenced by the two world wars, the rise of Facism and the Holocaust.

That’s a quick little history/philosophy review for you according to the Age classes. But the point I’m trying to make is that individualism hasn’t always been an intrinsic value of human civilization. It showed up sometime around the 19th century. We highly value individualism today. We have book shelves lined with self-fulfillment guides. We have bucket lists. We emphasize the “self.” In some ways we live in a “it’s all about me” society even though we criticize people who act like “it’s all about me.” I don’t know that I fault this drive to find, understand, and cultivate the self. I’m just not sure that it is the place where our main focus should lie.

My mom was never given the opportunity to search for her self, like Sue Monk Kidd does in Traveling with Pomegranates. It’s not like Mom  ever chose to be a caregiver her entire life. It was the life she was given and she rose to the occasion. What I wonder is, how does all this emphasis on individualism and self have any significance in the life of a caregiver, other than to cause a sense of frustration that something is missing?

My mom’s life has never been about “me.”

Here’s the thing. I’m not sure all this focus on the “self” has really gotten us that far as a society. Road rage and drug addictions come to mind. Are we really happier and better off as people?

One thing I know is, when I’m down or depressed, helping someone else or doing something for someone else helps me.

Maybe it’s not about self at all, maybe it’s about the other.

And maybe we, as a civilization, will get there someday.

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29 thoughts on “It’s all about me – a worldview”

  1. The self that these people are chasing is a false one. The true self, the deepest self, the god-self, knows what you’ve stated here, Christine. When we care for another we are truly caring for god ‘through’ that person, which is the highest form of love there is.

    Your mom probably knows that. 🙂

    This was very well-written, btw.

  2. What a wonderful post, Christine. I just started reading Traveling with Pomegranates, but now I’m looking forward to it more.

    I do think that we have lost a lot in our society by focusing so much on the individual, on the “self.” Where is the sense of community, the sense of purpose, the sense of helping each other simply because helping one helps all? I think that is part of my own struggle at the moment. I mean, I know I am struggling with a loss of self, but more how I can do more to be connected with others.

    The more we struggle for the self, the more alone it seems we are.

    Thank you for articulating this so beautifully,

    Lisa

  3. What an important post. You have articulated something both beautiful and profound–something we are so inclined to forget these days. It’s ironic that you mention your mother here, as I thought about her when I read your most recent post about your father. How must she feel. How has she carried all of this for so many years. The story of her heart must be amazing.

    I enjoyed this Sue Monk Kid book. However, it didn’t impact me as much as the Secret Life of Bees did. Wow–now that’s a brilliant book.

    Hope you have a great day, my friend.

    Hugs,
    Kathy

    1. My mom has had her moments, I can tell you that. She’s struggled. I think the need to have a self is deep and natural. I think she might say she did have a self, if she thought about it.

      I think it’s interesting that we take what we need or want from a book depending on where we’re at in our life. I remember reading The Secret Life of Bees, and liking it okay, but it didn’t necessarily resonate with me. Since I’ve recently struggled with finding my place in life now that my life’s work (raising our children) has ended for the most part, I can relate to Sue Monk Kidd very well in Traveling with Pomegranates.

      Life is such a fascinating journey, isn’t it?

  4. When we become focused on “outer” needs of self we tend to become selfish/greedy; but focusing on the inner needs (emotional and spiritual) we become better equipped to take care of ourselves and others…it’s all in learning to balance and not becoming overly “self” absorbed. Well balanced people know there own needs, take care of them, and have plenty of themselves left for family and society at large.
    Most women like your mother learn balance by raising families, being caregivers to others,involvement in the work place or social arena, and contributing in their communities at large.

    1. I do agree that when our own needs are met we have more to offer others. I suppose the question may be more about how we define our own needs and how content we are to do without. Simple living. Simple needs.

      I think the point I was trying to make was, how do we determine our needs? An analogy would be television commercials that train us to believe we need all sorts of things. Our culture also trains us to believe we may need things of a non material nature. The truth comes if we can shut out the noise.

  5. For me this really has to be about balance. I’m happiest when I’m helping others and doing things for others. But as I’ve moved out of the role of full-time mom and out of the role of volunteering (which I used to do about 20 or more hours a week), and I’ve focused more on my writing, I’ve found enormous satisfaction in pursuing some of the dreams and interests I’d put aside. Still, there’s that balance because I miss the feeling of being a part of a larger whole…looking for a sense of community…and acceptance….and altruism.

    1. I think you and I have lived in parallel universes. Primarily I spent my time volunteering at the kids’ schools, so when that was over I needed a new vocation.

      I too am finding satisfaction in pursuing my “dreams and interests I’d put aside” (a great way of describing it).

      If there is something to be guilty of, I’m as guilty as anyone. I have been struggling the past few years with finding a purposeful occupation and in some ways, an evolved identity. Maybe I would have arrived here anyway without the help of our culture’s teachings.

      I wonder how my great-grandmothers felt at this point in their lives.

  6. This is really interesting because I think all those focuses on self, especially recently, have come about due to a culture that essentially ignores the self thus causing a deprivation of identity, esteem and individual meaning. There needs to be a balance and too far in the direction of self can result in greed, selfishness and all sorts of other terrible qualities but people need to know how to be selfish sometimes. Problems arise when people simply don’t know what they want or need as people which I feel like is an increasing situation. I’m a firm believer that you have to know yourself and take care of yourself before your interactions with others can be truly meaningful or beneficial to either party. Great post and topic.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think you are right about people needing to be selfish sometimes. Or to phrase it differently, people need to know when it is time to take care of themselves, or recognize that they are the person who needs. I’ve tried to convey this to my mom as she cares for my dad. I remind her, “Mom, if you don’t take care of yourself and something happens to you, then you will not be able to take care of dad at all.” It’s a tough situation. I think she grew up in a time where people thought it was a sign of weakness to need.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Sometimes I read/hear people talk about putting themselves first and I shudder a little. I think there is a balance that has to be struck, and instead a lot of folks just swing from one side to the other.

    I think we learn a lot about ourselves and benefit by thinking about others. It lets us learn about our strengths and our limitations. I get tired of seeing people who talk on and on about needing to do for themselves, yet the only time you hear/see them do for others is when there is some direct benefit to them. How do you grow as a person that way?

    Sara makes an excellent point, though. To serve others, we do have to take care of ourselves.

    Like most things in life, it’s all about balance. Lovely post!

    1. Thanks, Amber. I think you’re right, as many readers have pointed out: balance is crucial.

      I do think though that our society has some obligation to teach both the importance of caring for selves and caring for others. We’ve swung a little too far in one direction, in my opinion.

  8. I think you are a wise woman, Christine. Great post.

    I’m finished reading about Annie. I’ve shed many tears along tbe way. Somehow the loss is deeper for caregivers. We lose, for a time, a part of ourselves that we willingly gave up. I admire your mom. She lived a life of fulfillment. Her cup is still full and running over.

    Annie is in Heaven. There is no doubt in my mind. She lives, loves, and, yes, dances in His grace forever. Jesus is Hers and she is His. I can’t wait to meet het someday.

    1. Thanks, Carol Ann, for the kind comments. “Somehow the loss is deeper for caregivers. We lose, for a time, a part of ourselves that we willing gave up.” What a beautiful, clear thought. And how true.

      I wish you well.

  9. Since I don’t see any reason for mankind to be here . . . it’s up to each of us to decide how we choose to live our lives.

    You mom chose to marry and have children.
    Michaelangelo chose art.
    Mozart chose music.
    Ashton chose Demi.
    Mother Theresa chose to minister to the poor in India.

    Presumably, each of these people made the choices they did because they thought they would be happy in those roles. If they were not, they should have made other choices.

    There is the Ego-Self and the Spirit-Self.

    Allowing the Ego-Self to have its way leads to all sorts of problems ~ kind of like putting a toddler in charge of your life.

    Following the Spirit-Self leads to compassion, kindness, and a desire to help others.

    1. I’m still trying to decide how best to respond, Nancy. I’m having trouble getting past your first line, not that I fault you, but just that I never really thought about it in the absence of a theology. I think theology gives a reason for man and woman to be here.

      And I’m not sure I can separate myself into the ego-self and spirit-self that you mention at the end, although I understand that our desires can come from different motivations. I understand you are much more well-read on this than I am.

      But I can address the middle of your comment regarding choices. I agree we all make choices, but what is missing from the above is what happens to us outside of our ability to control or choose. Being in a role we choose may not be the only factor in our happiness. Nor can we expect everyone to be happy. I think of people who lost everything: the man in New England whose wife and two daughters were murdered by escaped convicts, the man out west several years ago whose whole family was washed away from their van in a flash flood, the painter who loses his sight, and the single mother who chose marriage and family, but did not choose the death of her husband to cancer.

      Ultimately the only choice that really matters is the one we always have— to choose how to deal with what life gives us.

      Finally, I’m not entirely sure this post, or life really, is only about happiness.

    2. The TED talk in Creating Reciprocity’s recent post addresses “the self” (i.e., the Ego-Self or false self) and our essence (i.e., the Spirit-Self or our connection and oneness with others).

      http://creatingreciprocity.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/self-and-other/

      Different lingo . . . but it’s what I meant when I differentiated between Ego-Self and Spirit-Self. The first is a projection of how we perceive ourselves vis a vis others. The second is WHO we really are . . . underneath it all . . . the unchanging essence we are from birth to death.

      So . . . if someone is trying to “find themselves” in order to bolster up the Ego-Self, it’s rather a waste of time since that’s merely a projection. No more “real” than an actor playing a role.

      In contrast, if someone is trying to “find themselves” in order to uncover the ESSENCE of who they are at the core . . . underneath all the layers . . . if they want to access their ONENESS with all that is . . . that’s a valuable use of time.

      And they can “find that self” no matter where they are in life . . . no matter what roles they are playing . . . from caregiver to bank executive to hippie . . . merely by looking within.

      Namaste. _/!\_

    3. As far as happiness goes, I agree with Aristotle and the Dalai Lama:

      “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” Aristotle

      When asked, What is the meaning of life?, the Dalai Lama answered, “to be happy and to make others happy.”

      In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama shares his belief that the purpose of life is to seek happiness, and that the motion of our life is towards happiness.

      What you attain in life is largely irrelevant to this quest for happiness. Instead, how you view the world determines your happiness.

      Barn’s burnt down ~ now I can see the moon. Masahide (1657-1723)

  10. Your post got me thinking. Our society is focused on “the self” and we are influenced by this. Yet on the other hand, I’m so glad that my life is more liberated than my mother’s was. I feel torn.

    1. It’s interesting that you brought up women’s liberation, JoDee. As I was thinking about my post and the comments people were making yesterday, I wondered if some of what I experience as a focus on the self wasn’t in fact one of the outcomes of the women’s movement, which I support as much as anybody and more than some.

      I think the readers who commented about balance have it right. We have to be aware of, care for, and take care of our selves, but not at the complete exclusion of everything else.

  11. It would be a shallow life to think only of oneself, wouldn’t it? It is when we give ourselves away for others that we find our true calling and purpose. I think fulfillment is the word we’re looking for, to feel that what we’ve done has made a difference.

  12. I feel as you do. My mom, widowed at 30, raised 9 children on a laundress’ salary for a Catholic orphanage. It was a hard life for all of us with repercussions that linger to this day. But no matter the baggage that continues to cling to me, I cannot but praise those qualities in my mom which kept us alive, and thriving to this day.

    …my only wish is that she could have thrived…and known happier times…

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