With all the options in today’s online playground, I’m not that adventurous. I’ve never tweeted or followed anyone’s tweets, I don’t have a Flickr account, I’m not Linkedin, I have little interest in Pinterest, and in my opinion, Groupon is a catchy misnomer more than anything. I’m on Facebook, sure, but it took a couple tries, and it didn’t really stick until being on Facebook was as ubiquitous as being in the phonebook, or being alive, for that matter. Some would say I’m behind the times, I say I’m a very discerning consumer of media. As such, there are two video podcasts I watch with some regularity: 1)The Meeting House, billed as the church for people who don’t like church and 2) TED Talks, arguably a church for people who don’t like the church for people who don’t like church, and where I came across this address by Thandie Newton, whose struggles and insights potentially shed some light on what I’ve been experiencing in my brain-damaged life.
Note: some interpret Newton’s use of the word “self” to mean “ego” but I believe it goes deeper than that. In my opinion, “self” is how you understand yourself to be, how you view yourself as a social being, and this definition is created and honed through the feedback, the projections, you receive from those around you. “Ego”, then, is the result of a “self” that has been trained to value itself through pride, importance, and accomplishment. Everyone has a self, not everyone has an ego.
A few points struck me when I first watched this the other day, and the 8-10 times I’ve watched it since then. First was the idea that our perception of ourselves, our self-image, is a projection based on others’ projections. During what I call the Dark Times, the early years of my recovery, this dynamic was painfully clear. I felt immense pressure to live up to the image friends and family had of me, in other words, my projection of what they expected. Pre-accident, I took pride in my easy-going demeanour, my wit and humour, and my athletic ability. These were the things my people liked and came to expect from me, hence I judged these to be good characteristics to have, worth their weight on the social scales of success and popularity. Post-accident I fought like the devil, though to no avail, to return to form and when I finally accepted the impossibility of re-creating my old self, I set about trying on new ones – a practice Newton also alludes to.
Returning to university, I was back on familiar turf yet everything was different. Most significantly, my friends had graduated and moved on to pursue careers while I was still in Vancouver General. I no longer had that trusted circle of people whose feedback I internalized to foster or suppress different character traits. This vital piece, then, was missing at a time when everything I thought I knew about my “self” had been obliterated. I desperately wanted to be accepted, affirmed, respected, but every feeble, pathetic attempt to present an acceptable self left me more confused, more lost, and more desperate. In Newton’s words, “I was an anomaly, and my self was rooting around for definition, trying to plug in – because the self likes to fit, to see itself replicated, to belong. That confirms its existence and its importance. And it is important, it has an extremely important function, without it we literally can’t interface with others.” After two failed attempts to continue my schooling, I left for good without a degree or any greater sense of self – the former being irrelevant, the latter absolutely crucial.
In the years following my final departure from university, I focused on my physical recovery which involved a lot of time at a chiropractic clinic and a gym. The people I saw regularly at each location became the vast majority of my social interaction and, accordingly, I went about creating and presenting a self that could raise my social stock in these new circles. The problem was that the “self” I was presenting wasn’t true. I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t, and that’s partially why it was rejected. As Newton says, “The self that I attempted to take out into the world was rejected over and over again, and my panic at not having a self that fit, and the confusion that came from my self being rejected created anxiety, shame, and hopelessness which kind of defined me for a long time.” This was not unlike my own experience.
Some time ago, a high-school friend, after learning about the accident wrote to me (on Facebook, of course) saying, “It’s great to see that no matter how hard you get hit they’ll never knock the Jay outta you.” On the one hand, that’s exactly what happened. The “Jay” I had in my mind, the self I constructed and projected was gone because a new one had taken over – and it had to. It would have been strange and unhealthy to go on as though nothing had changed. On the other hand, I’ve had the comforting realization that some of my “self” was indeed “grounded in my essence” for certain recognizable characteristics remained, consistent in each subsequent “self” I tried on and discarded.
So I look to those characteristics as signposts, leading the way towards living from this real place, because as Newton put it, I believe the key to my progress as a person now is the very lack of self that used to make me feel so anxious and insecure.
And being aware of this is a good start.