WHILE LISTENING to the most recent episode of Clerically Speaking, I was struck by Fr Harrison’s ruminating on his ADHD and his free will. If we make out a part of us to be “who I am” then everything is filtered through that. Father seemed to be asking if he’s created too much of a crutch, short-handing his entire life into the ADHD diagnosis. It was an internal conversation I recognized because of how we treat SSA. The claim that “this is who I am” is reinforced, over and over, through the process of coming out: each emotional hurdle – telling Mom and Dad, telling my siblings, telling my friends, telling my faith community, etc – involves a process of fear, courage, and eventual release of endorphins, that it might almost be called self-hypnosis. The individual formulates a self-image, then does a test-run and is affirmed in that image. Eventually even the negative reactions to that image become positive reinforcements.
We can do this with sexuality, medical or psychological diagnoses, with our job, our class, our social positions, etc. We create a self-image based on some tiny aspect of ourselves and then feed that image until it grows into sort of synecdoche for our entire person. But that image isn’t me: it is, essentially, an homunculus, a fake me that I put out there to let others see and interact with. The real me, deep inside my being, is not important. Who I am projecting to be now is the only thing that matters. I’ve made a new me out of this one thing.
There are a couple of moments in, of all things, Brideshead Revisited when the narrator recounts that either himself or another character (Rex Mottram) are “part of a man pretending to be the whole”. For Rex it is his political aspirations, which are so important that his politics change over and over: from far right to far left, from capitalist to socialist, he will do anything to be popular – even contradict his previous self-image. The Narrator does this as an artist: puts a self-image of Bohemian Creator out there and runs with it. Anthony Blanche busts him free of this, calling out his charade. It takes, however, a few more chapters before the narrator gets it. Rex never gets it at all.
This seems a species of Imposter Syndrome, projected outward. At the heart of this is a fear that I’m not good enough. I must fool you into thinking I am, though. If I show you a fragment of me, just the bits that are what are needed here, then I have some control over things. You will like me or I will make up a new me for you to like.
What struck me, working through this with my therapist and my spiritual director (two different guys), was that having an homunculus is a defensive habit that is hard to break. In the last 6 months I’ve caught myself making a new one out of my job and out of my vocation: a tiny little mini-me that has all the qualities of a deacon or a soup kitchen director, but none of the qualities of me. God can’t save a mini-me, only the real me, hiding in the background. I wondered how often we do this to ourselves: set up a defensive shield of something (my liturgical office, for example) and then hid behind it. For me it was my religious journey that, after a while, became the thing. I was looking for something but even when I found something it was never good enough. This makes sense, of course: if it’s not the Truth, how can it be good enough? But for a while, it was fun just being the “guy with a really cool journey”. It didn’t matter that I never got anywhere. Rootless trees don’t grow though: they are more properly called tumbleweeds.
The homunculus is, really, an idol: someone I’m pretending to be that is much more important than who I really am. Not, mind you, that the homunculus needs to be important: but it is more important than me. I have created this thing so you must deal with it. You must love or hate it not me. You must argue with or support it not me. I have put so much work into creating this that you must pretend not to notice me at all. This thing is who I am… fully responsible for all that happens, and never at fault. Eventually, I have no choice but to do the things that the homunculus would want for its own preservation. I become the thing itself. (Except that’s not really possible…)
When we have an idol (or a pantheon of them) we can comfort ourselves with the idea that people are relating to us. But no, they are not. They are only relating to the idol – the fake person created to pass for the whole. They sacrifice to the idol their love, their companionship, their time and worth. But they do not know they are doing so. Carrying the idol around, I know there’s an idol, but I dursn’t admit it: to do so would risk giving up the not-real connections I think I have. If I give up the idol, you might not like me. So I, too, begin to sacrifice to it on a regular basis. The idol becomes stronger than I am. Chapters 10-14 of CS Lewis’ Great Divorce have two stories of this issue: The Man with a Dragon (Chapter 11) and the Man with a Chain (Chapter 12). But, more subtly, there are other stories about holding on to self-image in lieu of self also in that chapter. We can make an idol out of everything and, eventually, the idol destroys us.
Tracking my own reactions, there are times when people break the homunculus, or when they shatter my self-identity unintentionally. If I’m doing something where (in my mind) I must be perceived as this thing then to do something that clearly is outside of the role I’m playing makes me wither in self-doubt. For another person to (by their actions) cause me to break character is to provoke a huge emotional response from me – usually anger, yes, but sometimes fear, self-loathing, or pouting. I know who I am pretending to be, but if you get a glimpse of the real me, I have to be defensive. I have to lash out in anger to not only fix the thing you broke, but to quickly cover up the rip you’ve made in my self-image.
As Lewis points out, the homunculus eventually takes over, like a parasite feeding on its creator’s life. Eventually there is nothing left except the homunculus. The thing is God can’t save the homunculus. God can only save a human soul. The Church can’t ordain an homunculus, even one that is liturgically perfect. An homunculus cannot love others, although it can be made to seem as if it is loving others. A choice must be made: do I keep feeding the homunculus, or do I let the real me out of the box? The risk is that the real me must now feel and make choices: to be liked or not, to get saved or not, to love other people or not. Taking risks can be dangerous.
That’s what life is about: be still and know. Life is coming to oneself which can only happen by God’s grace. And self we imagine we’ve found on our own is not really us. As with Abram and the Prodigal Son, God is the only one who can reveal our real self to us. There is no need for panic attacks, angry lashings out, or fearful idol worship. Be still, and know.