Pioneers of psychology such as Carl Gustav Jung brought to our attention the impact of narratives that influence our everyday life at an unconscious level. For example: The archetypal quest of the Hero is a common mythological thread at the centre of many modern novels and movies. There are several common archetypes expressed at a macro cultural stage and these are relatable to us in the scope of our personal experience. Some examples are:
- The healer
- The rebel
- The magician
- The judge
- The explorer
These broader narratives resonate a cord of meaning for us all at the most personal level, transcending cultural or historical constraints. Jung posited that archetypal representations are tied to our evolution throughout the ages — common narrative of both predicament and triumph is passed down through generations. Their personal expression is just one shard of the bigger picture, reflected in a much larger cosmos.
While the expression of a given archetype can be rather unique and personal, that expression links back to the broader cultural and biological roots of human experience across aeons.
Deconstruction of self narratives
In the 1960s and decades that followed, the constructivism approach to human thinking brought a different perspective to how we view the relationship between the subjective and the objective world. This relationship is important for us to consider when speaking about micro (personal) and macro (collective) narrative. Before postmodernism, the line between the person and the world "out there" was rather clear cut, but in many ways this distinction has been challenged in the era of postmodern psychology and philosophy.
The use of verbal language and complex executive functions of the prefrontal cortex are relatively novel skills in our evolutionary past. Communication and understanding via imagery, metaphor, and feeling is much more deeply embedded in our historic past through millennia — and it is in these more hidden aspects of self that we can often learn the most about our deeper motivations in life. As Jung pointed out, sometimes the narratives that drive our lives have a much more profound and grander impact than any given external event, no matter how seemingly important at the time.
For example, on a surface level we may find ourselves driven by tangible and concrete goals, such as the pursuit of wealth, happiness, and satisfaction in life. However, despite the amount of raw income or entertainment we find at the surface, we may encounter a lack if we are not living in tune with our deeper chronicle — the story of our true self.
Postmodernism and constructivism
'Modernist' roles of the traditional man and woman have been challenged at an exponential rate in recent decades. Likewise, the active challenging of views on 'traditional' roles based on gender, age, and cultural expectations has become more and more common.
Although there has been a level of cultural normalisation of this collective de-construction of self, the process also illustrates a more profound and powerful potential for inner, personal empowerment. It shows to us that the limits of our self-potential, as defined by cultural and parental conditioning, is not the be-all end-all.
Liberal initiatives such as the feminist movement have appropriated this idea to an entire gender, but in fact, each individual has the potential to re-frame and re-negotiate where personal meaning and power can be found too at the centre of their own life. To a large extent, we are the painter of our own canvas, as it were.
Stepping back from strict taxonomies, we can recognise that we are at the centre of our own life and the ultimate creators of our inner domain. It us up to us to tell the story of Alex, or the story of John, or the story of Sarah.
We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life – Jung
For example, suppression of races and societies at a macro-level can be tied back to particular narratives at the unconscious level. Yet, the mirror of these can be found in the individual's heart. The language of the myth and narrative interweave both.
In that sense, while we surely live life, life itself just as surely lives through us via the broad canvas of stories and narratives we align ourselves with. Jung observed that we can never quite escape deeper narratives that bind us at the unconscious level until we bring awareness to these stories about who we are and transmute their collective power into personal meaning.
There is a spark of consciousness — a driver for intention, if you will — within each of us. This observer force allows us to sit back and be mindful of the narrative we are living — not necessarily appropriating, engaging, or associating with it. It could be the narrative of the man or the woman; the student or the career professional; the artist or the scientist — upon a myriad variants these lines intersect in what we make of life.
Yet, we also set the scope for these conceptions in the first instance. What does it mean to be a man in the world? A woman? A writer? An artist? What do these meanings have at the micro (personal) and macro (societal) level? How do these meanings change and evolve across the aeons and ages? And, most critically, do we recognise that we are at the centre of it all, the storytellers?
Wielding metaphor and archetype
Throughout the ages the above conceptions of human beings have changed. They've evolved. Sometimes they've devolved. More importantly though, our personal conception of what it means to 'be in the world' is never completely congruous with broader traditional, cultural, or social expectations of the same standard.
A common exemplar of this is faith — perhaps the most divisive force in our world.
In exoteric religion the definitive version of a "Good Christian" or "Good Muslim" can be rather doctrine-driven and specific (like any deontological model of ethics or moral practice). On the other hand esoteric practices in the corresponding Gnostic or Sufi traditions diverge to such an extreme extent from doctrine, in fact almost beyond recognition. Yet again, the personal and individual practice amongst these traditions differs in a multitude of manners as the paths are parted.
Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthrals and overpowers…he transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night — Jung
Despite this, we can self-recognise as a Christian, but take a step back, and observe how this role plays out in our interaction in the world. It no longer becomes the force that molded us as human beings, but one narrative for potential alignment and meaning-making.
It is important to recognise how we own these broader identities as part of ourselves, yet also how we differentiate our sense of personality and selfhood despite these broader narratives of existence — religious, cultural, political, or otherwise. There's something beyond that which allows us to navigate the broader narratives and choose who we become in the world, in the Nietzschean sense of a call to greater personal power: that self that observes and structures the self. It is here that we can re-align with deeper narratives, to renegotiate our source of power and meaning in the world. We become more than the slaves to the broader narrative and instead begin to find the authentic sources of self-hood and meaning afresh.
The alchemies of light and dark
How do we go about this daunting process of re-negotiation? For starters, it's important to recognise how various narratives rule over our lives, either via the virtue of tradition or through polarised self-authoring.
In the past, I adopted the view of Terrence McKenna that all culture is something to be weary of, as it traps us from becoming our true selves. Yet, tradition is valuable. Culture is valuable. But it shouldn't be the end-point of our personal sense of self. It is something to inform, rather than enforce our identities.
Parents far too often impose culture on their children as a means of self-restriction rather than as a mechanism of self-expression. Do these identities at a macro scale restrict or liberate your highest self-expression? This question is key when engaging in any kind of narrative or archetypal inner-work.
Many selves, many layers
In Buddhism, the idea of the middle path comes to mind. We are neither a polarised version of 'this' nor 'that' — we're something in between and betwix it all. Yet, we also have the choice to embody meaning as we recognise it.
William James recognised this as the role of the 'social self' in his paradigm-setting work, the 'Principles of Psychology'. James argued that while our deeper spiritual self is rather broad and boundless in potential, we present a surface-level social self in our interactions with other people. James thought that we oughtn't take that social self too seriously, as it does change and evolve based on social setting and context.
For example, you present yourself a certain way to your parents; a different way to your partner; and yet a different way to your colleagues. Still, you know that there is a deeper spiritual self below the surface, and that at the surface space it is all just a social act.
That social act is important though. It helps us recognise new means of engaging with the world, of understanding different parts of ourselves and other, and of learning how to align our movements and motions in the world with the deeper proclivities of our true nature.
If we become too fixated in our fictional narrative we risk that we might disconnect from the broader cultural and traditional forces that have echoed through aeons — those forces inform a great deal of wisdom in our lives. We might in the long run face what Jung referred to as the shadow of our suppressed self. On the other hand, if we centre on understanding ourselves through broader tradition and culture, with little regard for personal experience, we can lose our tangible sense of self in abstraction altogether. The question "who am I really?" goes unanswered, and more sadly, it never confronted with a real sense of depth. Perhaps the greatest liberating force can be found in standing between the narrative written for us and the narrative that we've yet to write for ourselves.
Where to next?
As a reflection, ask yourself:
- What are the boundaries I have set on who I am as a person; who I am not; and who I could and couldn't be?
- What are the boundaries my culture, tradition, and religion has set on the above?
- Are these negotiated boundaries liberating or restrictive?
- How much power do I have in life to negotiate the above?