I'm a writer (24 books + About.com: Civil Liberties), speaker, Ph.D. candidate (history of ideas), caregiver, and activist.
After watching all 32 minutes of a video by my guru of the moment, the magnificent Stephen Fry, I’ve come to realize a few very important things.
Lately I’ve been struggling, as many people do, with codependency—the desire to take care of others in a way that is ultimately harmful to them and to myself. But I’ve also experienced a great deal of joy lately, and I think it has come not from trying to please myself, but from occasionally eliminating myself from the picture completely and flowing with kindness and expression into the active world in which we “live and move and have our being,” as Acts 17:28 puts it.
What makes the codependency-recovery process challenging, for me, is narcissism. Specifically, narcissism surrounding the question of whether I am too narcissistic. I can’t possibly let myself become egotistical because that would after all be unworthy of a man of my stature. I aspire to nonattachment and take great pride in my humility. This is all hypocritical of me, but I hope you agree that it’s also quite hilarious.
To get serious for a moment, though, I know that I’ll die. Probably not soon—I have fantastic genes; people in my family tend to live into their nineties and beyond, and I’m in wonderful health, and still in my early thirties—but I will eventually die. And when I do, my mind and my body will both be gone. What will be left will be my social aura—the evidence of my interaction with others, my continuing interaction with others through whatever work I produce in my lifetime. About halfway through the Stephen Fry video, I realized why it is so difficult to accept this reality and why it is absolutely necessary that I do so.
Because I need to stop shrinking myself down.
There are, in effect, two Tom Heads. One is the biological system I call my body. The other includes my body, but also extends to incorporate the sum total of my interaction with the world. I call these two definitions of myself “little me” and “big me.”
When I make little me subject to big me, magical things happen; I naturally pay more attention to how other people are feeling, I produce more writing, I am able to teach, I don’t mind doing silly things, and life generally gets oh so much easier. But when I make big me subject to little me, I’m always obsessed with the question of whether I’m doing enough or getting enough or jumping through all the correct hoops in the correct order and my culpability or my praiseworthiness and, generally, it’s all a wash. I expose myself to the same level of unhealthy, unwarranted caregiving that a codependent can inflict upon others.
This is not to say that introspection is a waste of time; I’m doing it right now, aren’t I? But there’s nothing more authentic about just being the person in this body vs. living as if I really am my broader self. A hippie friend of mine used to describe his effort to do the latter as an attempt to “break the ego bubble,” and I think that’s a good metaphor. The distinction between myself and the world around me really is fairly arbitrary.
And there is no scientific reason to cling to it. As Richard Dawkins put it in The Ancestor’s Tale (2005), when writing about his concept of the extended phenotype:
Genes ‘for’ behaviour survive in the same kind of way as genes ‘for’ bones, and skin … Anatomical structures have no special status over behavioural ones, where ‘direct’ effect of genes are concerned. Genes are ‘really’ or ‘directly’ responsible only for proteins or other immediate biochemical effects. All other effects, whether on anatomical or behavioural phenotypes, are indirect. But the distinction between direct and indirect is vacuous.
And this assumes the most strictly biological definition of the self: the self as the effect of a specific cluster of genes. I prefer to think of myself as the cumulative effect of genes, social influences, education, environment, contagious values, and so forth, and if I am willing to acknowledge that I come from all these places, then there is really no reason to define myself in such a way that my identity begins and ends with my physical body.
We tend to do that because any wide-scope “big me” definition of the self begins to blur with “big me” definitions of others, and keeping people’s identities strictly separate is important. But why? Especially in this age of blood transfusions, face transplants, artificial limbs—in this age of “the boy in the bubble / and the baby with the baboon heart,” as Paul Simon put it—and in an age where we have more social access to others than at any other point in human history.
No, I’d rather look instead to Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:
Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then … I’ll be all around in the dark - I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build - I’ll be there, too.
My motion through the codependency-recovery process reminds me that I need to look out for myself. But my deepest values remind me that the self I should look out for is a broader self, a self that is defined by, that concretizes its being in, its interaction with others. To embrace the world outside, and to acknowledge that my identity overlaps with the identities of others, is to render the narcissism vs. codependency question irrelevant. It is not that we should not be self-centered; it is that we should be careful that the selves in which we are centered are not too small to contain us. We can abandon the arbitrary idea that our identities do not overlap—that we are not, literally, parts of one another—and embrace a larger vision of selfhood.