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Trading Growth For Depth

What is the Purpose of All Our Supposed Self-Knowledge



Despite all the self-examination, crisis, and panic that immediately precedes returning to university, since actually arriving back I have surprisingly experienced a sense of deep calm and contentment. A large part of this has been down to the fact that my flatmate and I have spent a lot of time together, and I have been attending some of his church meetings. University is not typically billed as a time for putting down roots and living a communal, reciprocal existence, but the view that sees university as a time for raucous, individualistic experimentation is no longer so well articulated as it was in the 1960s or 80s, eras upon which our own still depends as sources of ideas.


The genuine practical freedom of university can reveal to us the fact of our own inner being, because we have to start drawing on the resources of character that we have. This sense of being coming from within ourselves can be intoxicating.

In our teenage years we can get an ephemeral sense of that individual being when we separate from our parents in small ways. However, the persistence of parental guardrails prevents us from having to think and act through the consequences of our supposed individuality. Adolescent years are in retrospect unreal, because at the time we greatly underestimated how much any positive sense of our individual being, separate from the home, is really dependent on that home and its stabilising influence.


Something highlighted by the COVID-19 lockdowns I think was how little certain adolescent models of self had truly contributed to our journey inward. Dr John Vervaeke, a leading figure in the psychological study of the phenomena of wisdom and meaning, had this to say in a recent podcast:


‘Covid threw people back onto their inner life…Our culture, I’m not the first person to observe it, has a high preponderance of narcissism. People have oriented their lives in a very self-centred way, but they confused that with having deep, rich inner resources. And when everything sort of stopped, and they couldn’t focus the world on them, they had to focus on themselves in order to find resources. And this was frightening for a lot of people’

A self-focussed ethic is at its best rooted in a deep awareness of oneself as a locus of being, and the expectation therefore of responsible action guided by a sense of the inherent value of life. However, if what most people are finding when they look inward is a landscape that is desolate, as Vervaeke’s evaluation of the COVID-19 lockdowns might suggest, then we need to re-evaluate our models of individual spirituality. Instead of continuing to indulge adolescent patterns that prioritise growth, the accumulation of experience to make us feel more self-sufficient, we should set ourselves the task of acquiring depth. Where this path can lead is beyond the scope of this piece, but we can set off down it at university.

Dr Martin Shaw, a self-styled ‘mythologist’ and storyteller, has criticised the ‘growth’ model of spirituality for its neglect of the concrete problems we face. He leads us back to notions of responsibility and self-discipline via a poetic sensibility that also promises a rediscovery of the wild in us and in the world. Shaw begs us:

‘stop guzzling Ayahuasca for five fucking minutes, and consider the dreadful possibility that you were meant to be born in, you know, Duluth, and there’s something going on in your own family, undramatic and unglamorous as it may seem, that only you can unpick, make a peace with, and deepen. And in the end, something can flower from it.’

There is something I think profoundly right about the spirit of what Shaw says, even if we cannot all relate to its particular content. Everyone recognises the part of the hero’s journey where you slay the dragon, but how many recall the return home, and the distribution of the treasure among the community? The return home is the point, because in stories of old, the hero does not set off on his quest because he wants to self-actualise, but because the community is threatened. The goal of pure self-actualisation is, unsurprisingly, selfish. Be a hero instead.


Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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