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Outlooks from the Inner Life

By Cedric Speyer



“Attention is the engine of transformation.” (unattributed)

“Self-knowledge is a kind of funny thing because the less of it you have, the more you think you have.” — Bruce Springsteen

In the theatre of the absurd that is the American election campaign, much has been made of Trump’s unbridled narcissism. (See a recent piece by Gabor Maté in The Globe and Mail entitled “Donald Trump, narcissism and diagnosis as political sport” which describes the psychodynamics underlying the main players in the addictive reality show that is CNN.)

The “moral autism” we see on display wasn’t born in a vacuum, though it may be filling a vacuum left by a hand-me-down American sense of the autonomous, subjectively validated self, left to its own devices (in more ways than one, given the enabling technology).

The notion, and illusion, of the “self-made man” as “the totem of modern life” is exposed in a brilliant, if intellectually ponderous book: The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual In An Age of Distraction, by Matthew B. Crawford. Although apparently solidly secular himself, Crawford shows how the American idol (pun intended) of a freely self-determining person has displaced a truly religious (i.e. “binding”) orientation which is profoundly relational, soul-crafting, and world-making. We need shared frames of meaning to become fully human. Our personal perspectives and preferences are not the be-all-and-end-all of self-fulfilment, a latently idolatrous term in itself.

Lo & behold, the world has a reality of its own, independent of the self and we are summoned to join it; we need to engage with objective reality in ways that shape our character in the process. We all know on a gut level when something is better or worse, noble or shameful, beautiful or ugly, but when performance mode predominates, then it’s no longer about discovering the good or the true. It’s about proving the competent and capable as me, measured in monetary terms.

We know we’re in cultural trouble when a would-be leader of the “free” world is ludicrously self-justifying. One could say he comes by it honestly, however, in a society that has fashioned a golden calved altar out of self-responsibility, subjectivism, individuality, and competitive hegemony. The narcissism of the sovereign self naturally follows. People and things become props without a reality of their own, because they only exist to prop up or undermine a constructed self-image.

It’s the “freedom” of entitlement and “no limits,” unconstrained by circumstances; a “great again” return of an infantile tyrant unaccountable to consensually framed conditions. Sound like anyone on the public stage these days?

Crawford traces this moral isolation to the American distrust of external rule, whether the authority in question is clerical, traditional, political, or communal. The sovereign self is a holdover from the rebellion against actual sovereigns, and the “divine right” of earthly kings. The “enlightened” self was redefined as self-determining, self-sufficient, and ahistorical.

The only problem is that self is a fiction; it doesn’t exist a priori to our lives. Perception itself is a negotiated transaction with the environment. Its currency is intentional and relational. When we arrive in this world, there are inherited meanings and guiding purposes for us to discover. That takes an attentive self, not an autonomous one.

Speyer is a Benedictine Oblate as well as an author, subject matter expert for e-therapy, clinical consultant and director of InnerView Guidance International (IGI). He also directs a documentary series entitled GuideLives for the Journey: Ordinary Persons, Extraordinary Pathfinders. Connect with Cedric on or via