“Time,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “is the substance I am made of… a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.”
What the great Argentinian writer was meditating on here is the paradox inherent in our experience of change. Chronological time, he thought, was an illusion created by the conscious mind, a trick shielded by the habits of language. Every moment, in this sense, is eternal, and if we weren’t so bound by our perceptions, that would be apparent. And yet, he noted, the fact that this illusion of time’s continuity persists is also the source of our sense of self — a self that we experience through the notion of time, a self that we have to live with if we are to effectively function in the physical reality.
Ignoring the deeper metaphysical tangle in Borges’ assertion, the idea that we are our experience of time is an interesting one. And it makes sense, too. When we think of our sense of self, we tend to divide this self into three parts: past, present, and future. We think of it as a movement of change. It’s obvious to us that there is a difference between us now and when we were ten years old, and between us now and when we will be 80 years old. And our mind, then, uses the concept of time to denote the change that our body goes through as it ages.
Another way to think about this is to think of the self as a product of the changing emotional relationship we have to our body. The body is real, a physical creation of matter. The self, however, is a nebulous, emotional creation of the mind. The latter is an interpretation of how the body moves through both the physical and the social environments that surround it.
When we are born, we have no sense of self. But as other people, like our parents and our relatives, interact with our body and respond to its actions, we begin to create a self — an image of what this body is and what it can do and what it should be. As we experience more, we collect more and more data that informs us about our body’s place in the world. We slowly become conditioned by our surroundings — both the people and the environment — and this conditioning is then reflected in our behavioral expressions as habits, and this further enforces the self-concept. This is why, often, the voices in our mind that tell us what to do, that criticize us, or that support us sound an awful lot like those of the people who we were either raised by or grew up with.
Borges’ point was that, in spite of our confusion about time’s true nature, the self has a purpose, and that purpose is to live in the physical reality. To extend that further, I would say that its purpose is to live in the physical reality in a meaningful and rational and psychologically healthy way. This is difficult. Getting to that stage is what we associate with maturity, which itself reinforces the nonlinear relationship we have with time, because some people mature at 18 while others don’t get there even in their 50s. But all of us form a sense of self, all of us are negatively conditioned by the environments that raise us to one degree or another, and all of us are partially limited until we can overcome this conditioning to form a better relationship with our body.
The process of maturity occurs differently for each individual. For some, sheer diversity in experience slowly begins to change their intuitions about who they are and that changes how they see their body and thus their sense of self. For others, books and abstractions alter the way reality is perceived and thus how the body and the self are viewed and lived with. For a few yet, it’s therapy and conversation and a combination of experience and abstractions that get them there. Even within, say, different therapy practices, there are various ways of getting to the same end. Psychoanalysis is different from behavioral therapy which is different from humanistic therapy which is different from cognitive therapy, but they all have their strengths, and they can all be effective.
At the core of all of these approaches, however, is the idea that if you change your self-concept, you can radically change your life for the better. Or better yet, if this self has a healthy emotional relationship with its body, life can be lived to its full potential. The difficulty, of course, is that the self isn’t a consistent entity. It feels different things across what it thinks of as different frames of time, and the body internalizes all of this. This is why psychoanalysis may help you make sense of your past and how that has shaped your behavior, but it might still struggle to inspire responsibility. And conversely, how humanistic therapy might help you develop agency towards the future but that agency may still leave something to be desired deep down.
If we predominantly think of the self through a lens of time — past, present, future — and if this self is about our relationship to our physical body, then psychological maturity must have something to do with how we see our body in the past, how we relate to in the present, and how we think about its needs in the future. And this is exactly what I suspect underlies all of the different approaches to maturity. In particular, a healthy self is built on a triad of three experiences of our body across time: self-love relating to the past, self-respect in the present, and self-responsibility towards the future.
First, self-love. At its core, this is an experience we learn to associate with our body if a parent or a childhood caregiver is there for us, unconditionally, without judgment, in both our successes and our failures. It is an experience that instills in us the belief that we are loved simply because we have a body. We are a sentient being who struggles and succeeds, faces the ups and downs of life, and that alone, regardless of any other fact, is enough to deserve love. Love is what connects individual humans to each other. It’s also what makes us common in our togetherness, and that commonality is, in turn, what makes love unconditional. Self-love grows out of this.
Like love, self-love is built on a foundation of compassion and understanding and care. It looks back on its past, and it forgives shortcomings, mistakes, and failures because it knows that that’s part of what it means to be a fallible human-being who is constantly growing and changing. It is also reasonable in realizing that any permanent shortcomings, mistakes, and failures others have assigned to them in the past — unless encouraged from a place of love itself — say more about that person’s own being and clouded judgments than it does about the body they inhabit. Self-love creates a healthy, cohesive narrative of the past that is both realistic and forgiving. Love is what fuels us with belief, and without self-love, there is no belief.
If self-love relates to the past and grows out of the commonness of our humanity, then self-respect pertains to the present and represents our individuality. After all, if a person’s body has made it to the present, it has gone through enough trials and tribulations thrown at it by life that are markedly distinct from those experienced by any other human body that has ever lived. It has its own voice, with its own preferences and ideals. Sometimes, these preferences and ideals can be clouded by the conditioning consumed from others, but beneath it all, the voice is usually still there, and it usually demands attention. And with attention, it demands that the preferences and ideals that it values shine through in how the body expresses itself in day to day life.
Self-respect means having boundaries, protecting those boundaries, and then projecting the contents of those boundaries into the world — unapologetically — as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of other people and their boundaries. It also means learning how to negotiate the boundaries of your own body with the boundaries of someone else’s body. At its core, this means that a person has to first uncover their individuality and to live it, and then, it means that they have to develop the courage to go after whatever it is their individuality desires in the present, regardless of the outcome.
With the fuel provided by self-love, a direction inspired by self-respect, the last step concerns agency towards the future. This is the domain of self-responsibility, and it entails accepting the burden that comes with trying to reach a body’s full potential. It means acknowledging that life can be unfair, yes, and that we are all a part of a broader system that is bigger than any one of us, of course, and that there are many forces at play in the world that we just don’t understand, but still deciding that the only one who can do something to help this body is the experiencer of that body. It means accepting responsibility for a future that can’t be controlled, nor predicted.
To be responsible like this means embracing the ancient truth that it’s not what happens to us that matters but what we do with it. It means self-awareness, and it means trusting oneself, and it means getting in the habit of making decisions rather than waiting for the decisions to be made for us. If the past is a person’s lived life, then the future is a person’s unlived life. And within this unlived life lie the seeds of who we could be if we were to reach our full potential. And who we could be is directly shaped by the level of responsibility we are willing to take for the existence of our body.
To Borges, time both existed and didn’t exist at the same time, just like the self both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. Maybe as a unique, yet-to-be-discovered substrate of the objective reality, the self doesn’t exist. But the self as a nebulous product of the changing emotional relationship we have with our physical body is an important concept, and it’s one that dictates what we end up doing with that body.
Being human is a difficult task, and it doesn’t come with a universal manual that just anyone can follow. There are patterns to our collective experiences, and these patterns can tell us a lot about ourselves, but they’re not enough. That said, at the core of it all, all we are dealing with is a simple statement followed by an even simpler question.
You are here, right now. What are you going to do about it?
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