I read in Giles Fraser’s column in ‘The Guardian’ that the Girl Guides have changed their ‘sign up’ promise. Instead of promising to serve God, the Queen and their Country, Guides now promise to “… do my best: to be true to myself and develop my beliefs, to serve the Queen and my community, to help other people and to keep the (Brownie) Guide law.”
This has let loose a flurry of comment from both sides of the argument. The Guides themselves have said that they wanted to reach out to people who might not be religious. This move has been welcomed by atheists and humanists.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for the idea of being ‘true to myself’. There is a book called ‘The Drama of the Gifted Child’ that was influential for me. It said that as babies grow up, they learn to mask and deny their true impulses for the sake of the more fundamental need to be fed. So they develop a ‘false self’ that is cut off from their genuine impulses. They will say or do anything for a feed. This produces a person who, in later life, is unable to ‘tell the truth’ because the truth has been long buried in the need to be sociable and charming. From time to time the truth ‘bursts out’ in displays of anger or other indulgence.
In teenage years, when people begin ‘Guiding’ this same issue is again up for consideration. Teenagers are in the process of re-doing themselves, and so do not have ‘selves’ very much. They have peer groups. It is as teenagers enter young adult hood that they begin to ‘have’ relationships because they are able to lift a ‘self’ which is capable of relating to others out of the group identity of adolescence. This ‘self’ has to be capable of being ‘true’ to something otherwise it cannot ‘relate’ and becomes either a cipher for other people’s desires or a manipulator who, like the baby, wants what it wants but cannot risk disappointing those who will feed it for the sake of telling some kind of truth.
But the two kinds of opposition to this new Guide’s oath that I have read both tell of something very important about the deficiency of being ‘true to one’s self’. That is, that ‘selfhood’ grows in a context. Giles Fraser (Anglican priest) says ‘A sense of self that has disengaged itself from the stability of wider social, historical and cultural concerns is easily conscripted by the ferocious power of modern capitalism …Who I am also comes from without: from parents, friends from history etc. To seek to become the exclusive author of one’s identity is to make the self smaller, weaker and thus, ironically, more compliant. ‘
Zoe Williams says the same sort of thing. She says ‘In the context of a 12-year-old, it is even more rediculuous…What is that “self”? How is it distinguishable from one’s parents’ sense of self? How does one establish oneself as a person distinct from the family if not by testing ideas and identities and personas that, on the face of it, are pretty unlike oneself, or are certainly unlike one’s 10-year-old self? Isn’t adolescence by definition a state of flux? So long as young people are prepared to make bold statements about their core beliefs and aspirations, there is held to be no need for those beliefs to challenge the status quo, or those aspirations to stand a realistic chance of success… But that’s not what bothers me; what bothers me is that, yet again, we’re looking for the deficiency in some young person’s ambition when the actual barriers are entirely economic and functional – In short, it is asking of young people an absurd amount, that they maintain some sense of themselves distinct from the society they live in, never mind that they should aspire their way out of the structures that make some people’s dreams a lot more realistic than others’.
For Zoe Williams, the context against which the ‘self’ is formed is economic. She says that it is the structural and economic barriers of a person’s context that are more important than whether or not they can be ‘true to themselves’.
Both of these ideas are an expression of Robert Kegan’s idea in ‘The Evolving Self’: that as a ‘self’ develops, the development of consciousness is always against the background of an unconscious ‘holding’ field. As selves develop in young adulthood, they are held by the institutions of the society in which these selves are growing. These institutions can be things like family, work, organised religion, political parties, sporting clubs, class and so on. As Giles Fraser and Zoe Williams both say, from different institutions (Giles the Church, Zoe ‘The Left’). There is just no avoiding this institutional backdrop to an evolving self.
If we try to develop an ‘a-institutional’ self, then not only do we become vulnerable, as Giles Fraser says, to other people who have organised and who want to control us, but also that ‘meaning’ goes out the window. All you have to do is to look at modern art and see how many people ask ‘What does it mean?’ to see the way in which art, when it becomes the expression of the individual excised from a context, becomes meaningless to those who see it.
This is really my case for ‘The Church’ as the best institution against which a self can develop. The Church offers a way of being ‘self’ that transcends the limitations of family, and allows us to transcend the limits of family dis-function (which everyone gets). We have been given power to become Children of God, not just our parents. The Church transcends gender, and fertility as worth worshipping. The Church transcends economic systems, both capitalist and communist because at bottom, both are worshipers of money. The Church transcends sport and provides a framework for life’s meaning beyond the crippled knees of old sports men and women.
Everyone eventually becomes ‘conscious of’ the institutions in which we are mebedded, and sees their limitations, and makes choices as to how far they will influence us. This is the same with the Church as with any other. But again, the beauty of the Church is that within its institutional message, is the message of such transcendence. Christ in the Spirit is Lord and judge of the Church. We can be critical of any concrete expression of the Church because within the Church’s own teaching is the presence of the living Christ as judge and critic who is given to us.
When I was growing up, I was a member of the Methodist Order of Knights. We read the stories of the quest for the Holy Grail. Percival has to ask the question ‘Whom does the Grail serve?’, i.e. what ‘self’ has access to reality? The answer is ‘The Grail serves the Grail King’ (Christ). This means that it is in putting my ‘self’ in the context of the King of the Universe (Christ) do I become a true ‘self’, capable of having a ‘spring of action sure’.