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The False Self


Mary Fritz, C.S.J. (pp. 25-27), writes in Take Nothing for the Journey:

"The 'illusion of possession' is characterized in Thomas Merton's writings as the 'false self'. The revelation that the 'false self' is illusory and the discovery of the 'true self' in God is a main current in Merton's thought.

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love . . . outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

For most people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin (Merton, pg. 34).

"In a wonderful passage from the same writing, Merton describes our frenetic efforts to buffer ourselves from our nothingness in order to deceive ourselves and others.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. There I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface (Merton, pp. 34-35).

"The image of winding oneself round like a mummy, with whatever one can control, dominate, take to oneself and take glory in, sharpens the irony of our scramble to defy our true selves to emerge. It calls to mind, too, the scathing condemnation Jesus laid upon the 'hypocrites' of His day, who were not what they seemed, buy were full of 'dead men's bones and all uncleanness' (Mt 23:27). Such an indictment is leveled at ourselves as we covet our illusions of grandeur, abuse our gifts and use others, objectifying them like stars in our own constellation, which must revolve in their fixed orbits about the main star, of course—ourselves. 'We become the center and God somehow recedes to an invisible fringe. Others become real to the extent they become significant others to the designs our our own ego. And in this process the all of God dies in us and the sterile nothingness of our desires becomes our God' [Finley, pg. 33]. The false self, 'since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, begins to convince itself that it is what it does' [ibid, pg. 35].

"Thus the illusory self lives out its lie, abusing its gifts, treating other subjects as objects, conveniently arranged like furnishings in one's room. It finds nothing but bitterness, unhappiness and exhaustion from seeking fulfillment in this profound alienation of the heart from it roots in mystery."


Thomas Merton's "false self" is analogous to Karen Horney's idealized self.



James Finley (2003). Merton's Palace of Nowhere, rev. ed. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria.

Mary Fritz (1985). Take Nothing for the Journey: Solitude as the Foundation for the Non-possessive Life. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Thomas Merton (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions.





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