The Empty Self


It’s good to return to Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness the last couple of days.  How often we start reading a book without finishing it and  then return to it later to devour its treasures.

What has been lingering in my mind since resuming my reading has been the whole idea of “the Empty Self”. 

The contrast which Palmer draws with reference to “Secularism” (which focuses on the self as a “social construct”) and “Moralism” (with is focus on “selfishness”) has been most helpful.  Perhaps a quote to let us hear him out, he obviously wants to move deeper and beyond this polarity:

I have met too many people who suffer from an empty self.  They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be – an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others.  We embrace attitudes and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves superior but because we have no sense of self at all.  Putting others down becomes a path to identity, a path we would not need to walk if we knew who we were. (p.38)

In Malaysia, we’ve been bombarded in public discourse on the superiority of race.  Either all out in the open, or secretly in private conversation.  I’ve read it in the news, and I’ve heard it over coffee. Just when we think it’s the problem of some supremacist fanatic, we suddenly realize we’re talking the same lingo in private.

And isn’t it true we usually go along the lines that the “self” is either a “social construct”, i.e. the product of years of indoctrination, propaganda, lack of education, and so on.  Or, we swing to the other side and claim it’s plain “selfishness”. The fact is it’s probably a messy mix of both.  But Palmer’s words made me pause, because this is one key insight we often miss.  There’s so much effort to “fill” ourselves in public or in private because we’re simply empty.

Once we recognize that in us and even in others, there is less anger or fury but more sadness and tragedy.  How did we land up this way?  What do we need to do now?  How can we move forward with freedom?  These are inner battles one needs to engage in.

But alas, it’s hard because it’s not easy to translate the honest recognition of the empty self in public. It’s not easy to enjoy a cup of coffee when bullets are flying across the table. But having said that, I hope there will be some of us who can find gaps between the fire power, and breakthrough the smoke and damage.  Perhaps, even starting with ourselves, our families, our faith communities, we can begin reassessing ourselves.  The moment more of us do that, then an sample group or environment is cultivated for us to then find our true selves (in Palmer’s words), and with that form true communities.

This requires such a long term commitment.  All levels need to work on this. As a person of faith, I see this as a deeply spiritual and theological process.  Others might see it simply as getting back to basic humanity. Well, where we start, we better get started before we destroy ourselves. Or more tragically, we won’t have a world left behind for our children.

I agree with Palmer and won’t ignore the reality of selfish acts which will hurt us.  He says it better than I do:

There are selfish acts, to be sure.  But those acts arise from an empty self, as we try to fill our emptiness in ways that harm others – or in ways that harm us and bring grief to those who care about us.  When we are rooted in true self, we can act in ways that are life-giving for us and all whose lives we touch.  Whatever we do to care for true self is, in the long run, a gift to the world. (p. 39)

From today onwards, when I say “take care” (which is take care of yourself in short I think), it would carry the depth of this blog post meaning “take care of your true self”.  That’s our gift to the world.

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
This entry was posted in Meditation, Personal, Religion, Spirituality, Theology, World. Bookmark the permalink.

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