Finding Myself at The Ontario Symposium; or Self-Forgetfulness

Back in 1988, a bunch of social psychologists met in a sunny Canadian province to […]

Will McDavid / 6.24.14

Back in 1988, a bunch of social psychologists met in a sunny Canadian province to run through new experiments, theories, and approaches in social psych research. The theme was self-inference processes, or the ways we make judgments – accurate or inaccurate, constructive or merely descriptive – about, you know, who we are. The result is a mostly mundane, dry, and technical body of psych literature, littered with revolutionary insights into who we are (which, nonetheless, Luther had arguably discovered or personally reified centuries before), leavened with some real, concrete, original insight.

We’ve covered less psychology of late on the site, partly because it feels the field is trifurcating into self-help, hopelessly removed clinical papers, and those who popularize them, people who straddle the latter two (relevant research or responsible popularization (read: Jonathan Haidt) being the most interesting. Or maybe it’s just that the increased prevalence, or increased cultural articulation, of things like anxiety and depression has made psychology’s vocabulary more commonplace, less distinct. All of which to say, if ever there were a time when pitching one’s work toward monetization would be tempting, it’s now.

So it’s easy to forget how well psych can articulate things, and it’s a classic study in the human tendency to magnetize the indicative toward the pole of imperative to watch brilliant descriptions of human nature be shunted aside by the more urgent, but generally less practical, question: what can we do about it? For the seriously ill, the diagnosis is interesting only secondarily, but in some situations, as Eliot once said, “our only health is the disease / if we obey the dying nurse / whose constant care is not to please / but to remind of our, and Adam’s curse.” In that vein, we’ll let the Ontarian physicians speak for themselves (Roy Baumeister here):


The fascination with self pervades modern society, from the popular media to the research journals (Baumeister, 1987). Seeking, learning about, asserting, cultivating, repairing, fulfilling, and otherwise tending the self seems a natural preoccupation.The colloquial metaphors for this inner search, such as identity crises and finding oneself, are so familiar that they have become almost cliches.

Yet this relentless interest in self is not unproblematical. The demands and expectations surrounding the self have become inflated. The cultivation and exploration of self have become a central and powerful aspect of the meaning of many people’s lives. As a result, self can become burdensome, especially when some threat or failure is encountered. If maintaining a proper, desirable self is an important aspect of the meaning of one’s life, then having a failed or inadequate self is an existential catastrophe. And to the extent that self is a vital part of human functioning, failures of self may be anxiety. The individual may often find that these aversive states can best be escaped by forgetting the self.

We may add to this that mis-remembering can be as potent as forgetting; in another of the book’s essays, by Ross and Holmberg, we’re reminded that

Remembering can also be used in the service of self-presentational goals. Individuals can vary their accounts to project particular images of themselves (Greenwald, 1980). Such public memory performances are doubly important because they may affect the remember’s self-perceptions, as well as his or her public personae. Saying sometimes leads to believing… Individuals who initially alter details of an event to create a better story may, in time, come to believe those alterations themselves.


So we have flight or appeasement, either forgetting the burdensome self or remembering it constructively, which is to say, unfaithfully (in the double sense). Rather than letting the past speak, or awaiting a validation, an affirmation, of who we are, we reach out and seize that meaning and validation. In a follow-up to his original self-discrepancy work, Tory Higgins (along with Tykocinski and Vookles) noted the partly counterintuitive relationship between positive thinking and happiness:

The results [of an experiment] indicated that the smaller was subjects’ can-ideal discrepancies [i.e., ‘I can reach my ideal’], the higher was their level of depression… The subjects’ beliefs that they possessed ‘positive’ capabilities, then, was associated with suffering!

Brief pastoral note: the findings here suggest that if someone’s struggling, especially with failure or sin or habit, affirming that person’s capability to overcome it will often reinforce the suffering.

But what of the underlying problem, that is, our high standards coupled with our inability to change, to accomplish? Surely the pastor’s (coach’s/self-help guru’s/yoga instructor’s) affirmation of willpower will help us change! It may, but first and foremost it increases what Baumeister called the burden of the self. No wonder decades (longer) of pressure on males to lead and accomplish ended in Warcraft, where easy progress reliably happens if you slay enough boars (Parker and Stone, 2006). And that’s perhaps the least harmful way of escaping pressure, as Arthur Chu’s sobering deconstruction of male narratives suggests.

Focusing on self-improvement, even with help from God, reinforces this burden of the self. It’s a burden which, in its moralistic, traditionally Christian guise, has been largely bucked in the last few decades; its secular counterparts, health and prosperity (among other things), have turned out less well than an optimist might have predicted. The familiar cycle of fundamentalist Christianity – moral exhortation, followed by suffering from an overburdened conscience, followed by its inevitable release in lasciviousness or judgment, followed by redoubled moral exhortation in response – is remarkably similar to what’s playing out now in obesity versus fitness, food industrialization versus locavore-ism, political correctness versus ignorance. Which isn’t to say that progress can’t ever be made; only that it can’t be engineered. Fleeing the burden of the self isn’t the answer, but neither is increased effort, which only ends in delusion (misremembrance) or flight (forgetting). So where do we turn? Back to Baumeister – get this:

When personal crises occur and generate considerable anxiety that is linked to self-awareness, the natural response may be to try to deconstruct the meanings that produce the aversive state [ as meaning makes possible success, failure]… When anxiety occurs, the best escape from the aversive state may be to stop the meaningful though and self-awareness that is associated with the anxiety, and cognitive deconstruction [of identity, meaning, expectations, and self-narratives] may be the best means of accomplishing this.

A final proviso: Baumeister neglects to observe the near-impossibility of accomplishing such a deconstruction ourselves. And such a deconstruction – “it doesn’t matter, anyway” – only provides short-term relief. Reconstituting meaning, one free from anxiety and truly outside ourselves, is the hope. And for the one who has thrust aside meaning – especially relevant here, ethics – trying to find one’s own meaning (again, think extreme forms of health or food movements) will only reinforce that burden of the self, leaving us caught in-between the Old and the New. that leaves us, as usual in what is honest about the human condition, on Holy Saturday, having always already felt Christ’s death – acknowledged or not – in some deep-seated and genuine way. How does the Resurrection help?

First, as English novelist Hilary Mantel puts it in her own middle act, “Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable, and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.” In the Holy Spirit, truth (hopefully) breaks down the door, at one moment to condemn us, at another to comfort us. Our own cycles of toying with the idea of our failure, then hastily putting it away behind another distracting episode of NCIS, receives intensification at both levels: deep moral desolation and correspondingly far-reaching divine consolation.

Second, even when this doesn’t happen – those whose lives end in back alleys, disgraced politicians and pastors and leaders, sufferers of inadequacy and incorrigibility and bereavement at every level – it does. To quote the ever-insightful John Z, “forgiveness and redemption stand firm most poignantly in the places where sin appears to be dominant.” The brutal discrepancy between our ideal selves and our actual ones – a source of Baumeister’s burdensome self – will, taken to its extreme, coincide with the infinite discrepancy between God and humanity, one we are assured, no matter how often we forget or how doggedly we wriggle away, has been bridged.

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One response to “Finding Myself at The Ontario Symposium; or Self-Forgetfulness”

  1. Howie Espenshied says:

    This whole concept of self-forgetfulness and better understanding what a “living hope” is is pretty cutting edge in some ways and it’s a very worthwhile discussion. Is “regret” the opposite of “hope”? It seems to be.

    Thanks for some great writing on a very important topic.

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