When We Are Not Ourselves

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Do you ever feel like you are “besides yourself”, like you are not all there? Someone who says or does something which they regret might say: “I just wasn’t myself.”

I have heard that one never really knows all there is to know about one’s self. Instead, there are several parts of you. Listen! There is the you that only you know — right? Then there is the you that you want others to see. Then there is the you that others actually see. Then there is a dark side of you that nobody knows about. And then there is the real you — the whole you. No wonder we sometimes feel “beside ourselves”. No wonder we can sometimes say: “I just wasn’t myself.” This happens because, by ourselves, we are not complete.

Sometime ago, psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book called The Uses of Enchantment. He talks about the importance of fairy tales to the emotional and psychological development of children. He references the many stories of two or more brothers or sisters and he explains that they are really about the integration of a single personality. In other words, the brothers and sisters in the fairy tales are halves and parts of a single whole. They are besides themselves and divided. The story is spun in hopes of putting them back together as one.

Currently, there is considerable division in our political life. At the risk of simplifying this, a large part of the situation has to do with emphasizing one aspect or another of morality. The difference is between emphasizing private or public morality — but not both. There are those who vigorously oppose abortion, access to contraception, gay marriage, illegal entry into the United States, and the separation of church and state — all pretty much matters of private morality with limited impact on others. At the same time, another group focuses on public morality: the growing gap between CEO and worker pay, financial conflicts of interest, insider trading, walling off part of the border, disregard for the environment, and unchecked, unlimited campaign donations — most of which affect everyone. These different levels of morality, of course, are part of a single whole in a humane society.

Probably one of the most widely known stories of two divided siblings is not a fairy tale, but a parable. It is most often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”, a title which from the get-go puts the spin on private morality. But it could also be called “The Parable of the Two Brothers”, which would underline the divisiveness; or “The Parable of the Waiting Father”, which points to a father waiting for two divided brothers to get it together.

From the point of view of private morality, the younger son in the parable is a mess. He asks for his share of the property (one third), promptly sells it to a stranger, leaves the country and spends his newly acquired wealth recklessly. He ends up working for a foreigner feeding hogs, which is a complete violation to his religious obligations.

There is also a public component to his prodigality. By asking for his inheritance, he anticipates his father’s death. By selling off the property to a stranger, he diminishes the property that remains. Finally, when the property was divided, the understanding was that the brothers would care for their father in his old age. His wild spending frustrates this obligation.

But then, there is the older brother. When the younger brother comes up with the idea of dividing the property, does the older brother try to talk him out of it? No, he doesn’t. Could that be because he stood to receive two thirds of the property himself? Why doesn’t he stop his little brother from selling off one third of their land? He does nothing to keep his brother from leaving the country, and when the younger one is in dire straights in a foreign land, he doesn’t go looking for him. In many ways, he has failed to be publicly moral, mostly by sins of omission.

The older brother doesn’t really do anything except take his share of the property and then complain about how mistreated he is. And when he complains, he exaggerates. He says that his father has never given him anything, forgetting all about receiving the lion’s share of the inheritance. He claims to have worked like a slave. He self righteously says that he has never disobeyed his father, which might be true, but he hasn’t actually been obedient. He has been more like a good man in the worst sense of the word.

His exaggeration does not end there. He says that his little brother has wasted all of his father’s property, forgetting that he still holds two-thirds of it. Finally, he exaggerates his brother’s private morality. When he says that this brother wasted all his money on prostitutes, it has more to do with his own imagination than the facts.

In both cases, neither brother is whole. They are besides themselves, something is missing. The younger brother, in desperation, returns home and suggests that he take the place of a servant in the household. The father will have nothing of that, and wanting to unify his family, he prevails upon the older brother to reconcile. At this point, the older brother holds all the power. That is where the story ends, with a waiting father.

One could make the argument that private morality is private and public morality is public. In that scenario, private morality doesn’t affect anyone else so it is the prerogative of the individual and that individual’s conscience. On the other hand, public morality affects others, if not everyone. But that argument just prolongs the division.

The truth of the matter is that we are all in this together. Our lives wash into each other like waves. What one does in private, affects your public persona and behavior. It inevitably affects others. What one does in public, will haunt you in your most private moments. How will our political story end? Some of us are waiting for that.

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