During the twentieth century – since the writings of Freud transformed the landscape of human thought about our inner selves – we have learned to use the language of psychology to categorize ourselves. It’s hard for us to say, “I am the light of the world.” Most of us are more likely to confess, “I am a consumer, a manic-depressive, a co-dependent; and adult child of family dysfunction, an abuse survivor, an addict.” While these names may be accurate in some particular way – for example, in tracing the legacy of early trauma or chemical imbalances – they are limiting and inadequate in the largest sense. They cannot describe our true and deepest natures.
This sense of self, who we think we are, this sense of “I,” is one of the most obvious facts of existence, and at the same time is one of the most elusive. What we call our “self” is elastic, it shifts and moves. The “who” that we are depends upon the way we see ourselves and our world. If we believe we are bad, then we will act like a criminal. If we think we are fragile and broken, we will live a fragile, broken life. If we believe we are strong and wise, we will live with enthusiasm and courage. The way we name ourselves colors the way we live, who we are in our eyes.
So we must be careful how we name ourselves. Native Americans took their names from the sky and mountains, or from the power characteristics of animals, so whenever they were frightened, lost or confused, they could center themselves by calling on their own name, remember who they are, their strength, their wisdom.
Today, many of us live our lives bearing our diagnoses, wearing them like shields or psychological coats of arms. These names don’t move. They are cold and solid, like an epitaph. Beneath the stories, beneath the diagnoses, we are all children of spirit, beings fully equipped with inner voices of strength and wisdom, intimations of grace and light. But our clinical diagnoses prevent us from believing in our own wisdom. They suffocate our unfolding and limit the breadth of our spiritual evolution.
Psychology is not alone in looking at us with limited eyes, seeing only a small part of who we are. Neurologists see us in terms of chemical and electronic impulses; biologists focus on structure and the evolutionary processes that shaped us; politicians count us as voters; economists look at us as producers and consumers. And we are all of these, but each model is limited in its capacity to accurately render our essential identity.
The language of psychological diagnosis may be ultimately incapable of circumscribing our fundamental, spiritual nature. For this we have to look deeper, to where words don’t come easily. To where essential truths are uncovered more easily with poetry and prayer, with quiet, with music and dance, with the embracing of things beloved.
One of the greatest frustrations of professionals is that in order to keep their funding, to keep their jobs, they are required by clinics and insurance companies to give every person a concrete diagnosis. Without a neurotic or pathological name, people are ineligible for help. Thus we unintentionally perpetuate the practice of naming ourselves through our illnesses. This process of diagnosis – naming ourselves only through what is broken or defective – can fracture our sense of self. It maligns the resilience of the human spirit, ignoring any possibility of grace that may lie embedded within our sorrow. It creates the illusion, the lie, that because we suffer we are broken, defective, handicapped beings.
And if we feel ashamed of who we are, we will pretend to be someone else. We strive to look like someone more desirable, someone with a better shape, a prettier face, a deeper mind, someone who is a perfect specimen. In the process of trying to satisfy these demands, to become someone else, we do enormous harm to our natural self. When we struggle to create a new persona that is less offensive and more pleasing, to act the way they want us to be just so we can feel safe each day, year after year, in time we begin to forget who we are.
Jesus said, “you are the light of the world.” He didn’t say, “you are the light of the world if you grew up in a loving, supportive, two-parent biological family and had no sorrow, sickness, abuse, or grief.” Regardless of the shape of the abuse or illness or disability or joy or love we have been given, there is a luminosity that is never extinguished and is alive inside all of us at this instant, regardless of the names or labels we have been branded with. We are the light of the world.