Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes on how the “self” emerges in the life of a baby. Immediately after birth the baby’s brain is receiving stimulation from all of its senses even without an “I’ yet existing to process the information. Somehow a self emerges which makes sense of the sensory perceptions which are constantly streaming in to the brain. Humphrey asks, does the baby experience the different sensations at first as many distinct “selfs” each experiencing something but not yet as a whole or unified self? Humphrey compared this experience to watching an orchestra before a concert as each musician tunes his or her instrument – there are only individual musicians tuning instruments and we watching them cannot make sense of them as a unit, nor do we hear yet the symphony. The conductor must take the stage to form the unified symphony.
A unified “self” does emerge eventually taking in all information the various senses send to the brain and sorting it out realizing “I” exist. “I” am distinct from all the sensory perceptions. “I” not only make sense of them, but can act toward them and upon them for “I” am not a mere object being acted upon, but a subject capable of choice and actions myself. Time passes, we mature and move into the world where we come to experience our ‘self’ as many ‘selfs’ again. I am young, a boy, white, I speak only one language. I am different from others. I experience the world through gender, race, nationality, language or member of a clan, family, nation, ethnic group. Each of these ‘selfs’ make up my one self, and at times one of the ‘selfs’ emerges to the forefront as I relate to others or they relate to me. This may be the self I consider myself to be or that others think is me. However, no matter who I think I am, I realize others do not necessarily perceive me as I think of myself. I may see myself as human, they as black or poor or dangerous or friendly or intelligent or fat. I become part of other groups and there is my self as military, teammate, loyal fan, Southerner, educated, Democrat, Christian. I can choose to fit in, blend in to community rather than stick out. Or, I can become a leader, advocate for one of my many ‘selfs’.
Life becomes a balancing act of these various ‘selfs’ as we realize the selfs we identify with shape our worldview and shape the world’s view of us. We have to make choices in contexts in which peer pressure is real. I allow what others think of me to shape my ‘self’. It is possible for my ‘self’ to be amorphous at times as I cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence, opportunity or danger.
For Christians, there is the hope that one self emerges as we grow spiritually and grow in Christ – that believing self which is consistent with the teachings of Christ. This we understand is part of the healing that comes in Christ. The many ‘selfs’ are a result of the splintered, broken and fallen world. A whole self is wholesome. But, oh, how difficult it is to be consistent in every single circumstance one finds one’s self in.
These are some of the themes that Russian writer Nikolai Leskov (d. 1895) explores in his short story, “Figura.” It is a story that has stood out in my mind for decades since I first read it. It isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read, nor does it resolve all of these issues. For me, it just helped make clear as a Christian the cutting edge of one’s ‘self’ as well as how individual conscience relates to society, even a society in which conscience is essential such as the church.
The story takes place in 19th Century Russia, Figura is an army officer from nobility in Orthodox Russia. The story introduces ideas of regionalism (Russian vs Ukrainian, the Cossacks), class and social status (human divisions especially in the context of 19th Century Russia), which play into the many ‘selves’ of Figura. The story ends up focusing on his Christian identity, which is part of what Leskov wrestles with: individual conscience when one is a member of an institutional church and cultural Christianity. Figura is an officer over 42 soldiers and 6 cavalry men (who are Cossack’s, another social distinction). On Pascha night he is feeling his humanity and decides to try to do something nice for his men as he realizes how hard their lives are. He is struck by what it is to be human and the struggles this brings for each of us. He spends all the cash he has on hand to buy them tea and sweet treats so they can celebrate the Feast even though they are on guard duty. He has decided as soon as the “Christ is risen!” is proclaimed after Pascha midnight, he will treat his men. Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Figura feel compassion for his men – their humanity – will become the thing that confronts his compassion and his ‘self.’ His 6 Cossack soldiers get drunk and just about midnight, in the dark, one of the drunken Cossacks assaults Figura, striking him on the face and tearing the epaulette off his uniform. The Cossack then passes out.
Figura who had started the night off feeling his shared humanity with his soldiers and wanting to do something special for them because he realized their lot in life was hard, is assaulted by one of them, someone of lower rank than himself and also not from nobility. For the second time in the story he is struck by the soldiers’ humanity – this time though in a literal and painful way as he is assaulted by the rawness of fallen humanity. His emotions roil and boil, but then his Christian self comes into the forefront and he has to decide what to do. The soldiers have witnessed the event and his uniform is torn, so he can’t hide what has happened. The soldiers know there is dire consequences for a peasant to assault an officer and nobleman. They are prepared to deliver their fellow soldier over to justice which might include corporate punishment which could result in the offending soldier’s death.
Figura however is overwhelmed by his Christian sense of what to do if someone strikes you on the cheek. He hears Christ saying to turn the other cheek. He knows as nobility he must defend his honor. He knows as an officer he has to maintain discipline and order in the troops. He knows he is part of a military hierarchy and so has no choice about what to do. He is a man, a male, who must defend his personal honor in a society which would admire his willingness to use violence to defend himself. He feels the pressure that he has to set an example for all the other soldiers standing around him as well as for his fellow officers. He feels the weight of the expectation that he must defend the prestige of all those of his rank and class. The issue is not only a personal assault and insult, for he must defend the order of society itself. All the soldiers around him recognize what Figura ‘must’ do.
Yet, he forgives the soldier recognizing it was his drunkenness not malice that led him to this point. He is moved by the soldiers tearful begging for mercy and tells all the soldiers to just forget what happened. He has no heart to see his soldier punished to death for a stupid act. As Figura says, “I couldn’t remember Jesus and at the same time go against him in the way I treated people.” Figura’s ‘selfs’ have come in conflict and he has to deal with the cognitive dissonance.
Figura remembers an Orthodox prayer from the First Hour which he begins to recite, “O Christ, You are the True Light, instruct and enlighten every man that comes into the world…” As the translator notes the Russian word for world and peace is the same and Figura’s mind hears both meanings – “I interpreted this to mean that He would enlighten every one who came from enmity to peace. And I called out in a still louder voice: ‘May the light of Your countenance shine upon us sinners.’” Liturgical prayers that he recited all his life suddenly took on meaning in a non-church context, and Figura suddenly desires to live and embody the things he prays. All his soldiers are moved by his faith and prayers. They all understand the demands on Figura of social and peer pressure but are moved by his desire to practice his faith.
One self has emerged in Figura as his true self. This however is not the end of the story. While Figura comes to peace with God and his neighbor, with the world and himself, he will now be put to the test as his fellow officers and commanders proceed to judge his case. What he has come to peace with, society still has a say in. He will again have to weigh his decision.
Next: One Self, Many Selves (II)