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Redefining “Self”

I have just come back from a fruitful, engaging, and most of all warm and generous weekend sponsored by the organization Images and Voices of Hope. From my stay at the Peace Village in upstate New York, hosted by the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual group who are themselves based in India, I retain memories of many illuminating discussions, but also keen sensory memories of hourly one-minute breaks, triggered by soft, ethereal music. As the music starts, all discussion stops mid-sentence, people close their eyes, and, remarkably, the self is both refreshed and re-invited to participate. Time is fleeting, the music manages to say, and there is work to be done.

The ensuing conversations were respectful and at times intense, as each person managed to wait for the other person to finish speaking before responding, and each speaker stayed mostly on track, trying somehow to add to and complement the thoughts of the others in the room. The goal? In an open-source world, can we figure out how to be more human and create a kinder society?

How can we work with video games to teach social justice? How can journalism and the arts occupy more of a place of sharing and intelligence, rather than arrogance and isolation? How can enormous anger be channeled into the lonely voyage of exploration and, ultimately, of caring? How can a group of interested people amplify their voices while affirming their own modesty in the broader community?

And, of course, it was the conversations between the conversations, the ones that happened at a dining room table or on the grass, that helped push ideas further. And, for me, as I thought about what I had heard during and around these conversations, I realized that what I was witnessing was a redefinition of “self” in a multitude of ways.

I have written elsewhere about the assertion by Paul Stookey (of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary), about the progression of values in the United States as seen through the popularity of certain magazines. During a 1980s concert he recounted how once the popular magazine in the United States was called Life (about life), then it was People (not about life, but just about people), then it was Us (not even about all people, but just about us), then it was Self (not even about us), and now - to add on to what he had said - it becomes the Daily Me of Nicholas Negroponte, where one’s dentist appointment or Facebook status supersedes the report of the declaration of a new war or healthcare initiative on the “front page” of one’s nearly ubiquitous screen.

But here, in this conference, we were talking about another kind of Self that is not part of this progressive retreating from Life. Rather than the consumerist self of Self magazine, the increasingly angry and frustrated self that demands more and more choices no matter how mediocre many of them are (the television dial, for example), and is now seduced by the Web as the platform that promises ultimate choice, there is another sense of self, and self-interest, that acknowledges that much of what we mean when we say choice is the ability to be diverted from what is more real, urgent and important, including ourselves.

This more amplified sense of self recognizes that we need to know what is going on in the physical world if we are to survive as individuals and as a species, rather than use media to have our own pre-conceptions affirmed. This larger sense of self, and self-interest, reflects the understanding that we cannot live fulfilled lives without embracing our co-inhabitants in both spiritual and pragmatic ways.

The affirmation of the consumerist self becomes a way of asserting entitlement without ever feeling fulfilled, of clicking from site to site without ever landing, of demanding more and more choices without focusing upon what we already have. Each foray into the other is not trivial; it is also a foray into the vastness of our selves.

If digital media would be crafted to better reflect a more holistic sense of Self, one that recognizes the power of less as much as that of more, we will have been given a second chance. We will have created, to echo Stookey’s progression, a means to better understand, to enlarge, and even to ennoble Life.

2 Comments

  1. David Galalis wrote:

    What you are touching upon here, quite importantly, is the difference between freedom and instinct. We tend to believe that freedom means following one’s instinct whenever or wherever it leads. This leads to the phenomenon you describe of having ever increasing choice, but less fulfillment, as we click our way from one sensory experience to another, searching for something to answer our infinite human needs. As you rightly point out, this instinct driven search leads nowhere.

    Instead, we need to re-discover, or re-define, a meaning of freedom that indicates an adherence to what is objectively good for the self, even though perhaps not always instinctively alluring. Let me take a step back. When is it that we feel most free? We feel most free when we are satisfied. Freedom, therefore, is to truly satisfy our human needs (such as the needs for love, justice, and beauty) and to not stop at the mere illusion of satisfaction that various forms of media might provide.

    All this leads back to the self as the place where this change must take place. The systems of media in which we live are reflections of our selves. If we are to change the system, we need to change the self. Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote in Choruses From the Rock, we need to stop “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” The media will change when those who make up the media do — the media is not an independent entity imposing its will on us. It is us. We created the beast that enslaves us.

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Yes, here we are in the warehouse. There is too much of it, and, as is the rule, 99 per cent of it is awful. In some ways, we are back to the small village, where you only share your work with a small circle, because they know, respect, and care. And there are millions of these circles, no obvious to anyone outside themselves. No longer an important, effective, central distributer of art, photography, or music anywhere.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

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