Brain Pickings

The “I” of the Beholder: What Is the Self?

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“The fate of the world depends on the Selves of human beings.”

“I change every day, change my patterns, my concepts, my interpretations,” Anaïs Nin wrote to Harper’s Bazaar editor Leo Lerman in history’s most gracious turn-down of a major magazine profile, “I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles.” And yet despite how much science may disprove it and philosophy may debunk it, most of us cling to the notion of the permanent self with unparalleled zest.

In her seminal book The “I” of the Beholder: A Guided Journey to the Essence of a Child (public library), education pioneer and Roeper School co-founder Annemarie Roeper considers the origin and nature of identity and of the self as it relates to developmental psychology and our formative years.

Roeper, who fled to America from Nazi Germany, was born in Vienna in 1918 and came of age in the aftermath of “the age of insight,” which had sparked a historic cross-pollination of science, the arts, and the humanities. This was also the dawn of our modern understanding of the human psyche, a movement that elevated Freud into one of the most influential figures in Vienna and the rest of Europe. Roeper was literally nursed on his theories — her mother would breastfeed young Annemarie while discussing Freud’s work with her psychoanalyst friends. The confluence of these two — a cultural climate that placed a great emphasis on thoughtful education for children and a keen interest in the inner workings of the human psyche — came to define Roeper’s life path, career, and influential contribution to education.

Roeper writes in the introduction:

[We have] a sense of the mystery of life, the mystery of the universe that surrounds us, and the mystery that is within us. It is within these vast unknowns that we try to establish our identities. We strive to carve out a place that is known, a place that we can manage, a place that is safe, a place that allows us to grow our unique Selves. This is nothing less than our struggle for psychic survival, a need for identity: tribal identity, national identity, group identity, a family identity, and finally, an individual identity.

More than merely recognizing the sensemaking function of the Self, however, Roeper argues that this understanding of the Self underpins nearly every aspect of society and emphasizes the enormous importance of understanding this “complex unit, filled with conscious and unconscious reactions, drives, feelings, and anxieties”:

We have failed to create a safe, harmonious society for past, current, and future generations. History is made in the cradle and in the classroom, and how a child grows, how his or her Self develops, determines the future of our world. We lack a fundamental understanding of the human soul and how it develops. This lack of understanding affects every aspect of our lives, whether it is in politics, economics, education, the penal system, or relations between the nations of the world. In our approach to children and ourselves, we need a view that includes the Self and the universal reality of physical and spiritual interdependence.

Rather than a cognitive concept, however, Roeper argues that the Self is something else, something bigger and more ineffable, the missing link in the age-old quest to understand what it means to be human. She illustrates this with a poetic role-play parable wherein she encounters the Self and the Self speaks to her, articulating its concerns about its role in the cultivation of a child’s psyche:

Stop judging me, evaluating me, categorizing me. I am an enigma and will remain one. If you include me, we can dance together. If not, I will shrink and be crippled and cower in the corner. The strength of my feelings will be undiminished, but if they have no outlet, they might burst out in destructive ways.

I am wondering how words could describe my complexity and mystery. How can cognitive terms explain what you see in the trusting, eager eyes of children who look at you expecting safety and comfort, unconditional love, and true empathy? In their eyes, you can see such depth of feeling, such thirst for growth, such creativity, and a passion for learning.

Each one is filled with unpredictable mystery, drive, and potential — a complete agenda of his own. And such beauty! But also uncertainty, questions, fear, anger, jealousy, distrust. Their eyes and ways truly speak volumes, if you know how to read them. It is the Self, the “I” of the beholder that looks at you from these eyes. I, the Self, say to you, I trust you to help me develop and become who I am, who I want to be, and who I am destined to be.

When Roeper asks the Self what she could do to help it spread its wings, the Self replies:

I am a whole world, the inside of which confronts the outside and wants to be one with it. But I am trapped inside and can only reach out to you if the world outside understands and feels with me… I need to grow just as the physical body does. Just like the physical body, I, too, need food and shelter. I need to be cared for. Let them know that they must respect me, for the fate of the world depends on the Selves of human beings.

What makes us humans unique, Roeper reminds us, is precisely this ability to observe and converse with — even if in less literal terms — our Selves, to form with them the same type of relationship that we can form with our bodies. Roeper writes:

One of the strange things that we humans can do is to look at our own Selves from the outside in, as well as from the inside out. In other words, we can feel and at the same time watch our Selves feeling.

In continuing her imaginary conversation with the Self, she considers how its task differs from that of human organs. In a meditation reminiscent of Alan Watts’s teachings on death and the ego, she tells the Self:

You are the core of our being; all of the other parts of the body are felt to be part of you. When any part of the body is hurt, you feel hurt. When our body feels well, you feel well. We know we are alive because we feel ourselves as “I.” I have never died, but I know it is the “I” that feels the dying. It is the “I” that stops existing in the form in which we are used to when we die.

Much like The Little Prince observed that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” the Self questions how “it” exists if it’s invisible. Roeper answers with “a true story” — does a story whose truthfulness is alleged within a fictional dialogue remain truthful? — and offers an anecdote:

A few years ago, I worked with an eight-year-old who had difficulties in school. She showed me a picture she had drawn and said, “This picture will tell you why I am having trouble.” I saw a small child in a car but could not tell what she was talking about by looking at the picture. She said, “You will need this,” and handed me a magnifying glass. Now I could tell. There was a picture of the Earth inside the child’s head, with hot flames shooting out of it. She said, “There’s a whole world inside of me that doesn’t match the world outside, and this is why I am having trouble.” She said this is what makes her so lonely and helpless and angry. She said the world inside every person is as big as the one outside, only no one knows that it is there.”

This, Roeper tells the Self, is what the Self is. She continues:

You have your own agenda, your inner mandate. This mandate originates from all sorts of sources. It moves in all sorts of directions but functions as a unit. It becomes a life force. You are destined to grow a certain way, as is the flower and all living beings. Sometimes flowers persist in growing even between hard rocks. Their life force can compel them to grow in unexpected places, but they cannot grow well if they aren’t nurtured. Sometimes they get crippled and unhappy and cannot grow much. But other times, persistent strength may move the rock out of their way.

This is exactly the fate of human Selves when they encounter the world outside. They must follow their agenda. So, yes, there is a plot, but the course of this plot is not predictable, because we don’t know how interaction with the world changes its course. It is the greatest drama in the world.

Articulating the same sentiment that John Updike did when he observed that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery,” Roeper concludes her imaginary conversation with the Self:

We don’t really understand our Selves or what life is. It is a mystery, and this fact is hard to accept. Humankind has developed many theories about you and believes they are facts, but in the end, all we can see is your behavior, your reactions to the world around you, and the world’s reaction to you.

Roeper lived to be ninety-four — proof, perhaps, that a concern for children’s minds is the key to longevity. The “I” of the Beholder, her final book, goes on to explore just how poorly we understand the self and how much a richer understanding can help enhance the happiness, mental health, and potential for success not only of gifted children — Roeper’s area of expertise — but of all humans, at all stages of life. Complement it with Alan Watts on the ego and the universe.

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