Thomas Merton on our True v our False Self


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“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

M. Scott Peck, from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 51

 

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God—because Truth, Light—knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love— outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish most about ourselves—the ones we are born and raised with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to maintaining and expanding this false self, this shadow, is what is called a life of sin.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life around which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

To be a saint means to be my true self. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I truly am and of discovering my true self, my essence or core.

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.

With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like.

We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.

But we cannot make these choices with impunity.

Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it and that confusion reigns.

– Thomas Merton, abridged and adapted from “New Seeds of Contemplation

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