Years and years and years ago now, there was a long while when I had a really tough time of things. Frankly, I was a mess, in the kind of way that leads a lot of people to sleep under highway overpasses, and causes them to mutter to themselves while pushing shopping carts full of their belongings down city streets. That could have been my future, and to this day, I'm not exactly sure what pulled me back from the edge of that abyss.
During that time, I began to use a coping mechanism that was a bit odd. At the time, though, it offered me just about the only way possible way of existing in the world without blowing apart at the seams. In fact, it may well have been the thing that kept me in the world.
I began to suspect that "myself" was actually a collection of various “selves.” I began to see that “I” changed roles quite a lot, and that there were many, many times when my deep personal unhappiness came about because my “selves” disagreed with one another, and even flat-out hated each other. This recognition came as a powerful relief to me, because it made a lot of things understandable.
This habit of mine never really qualified as the classic split-personality, psychosis thing. I did research it, though, because I knew that it was a rather peculiar thing I was doing. What I found, though, was that in the classic multiple personality, the different “personalities” trade ownership of the body, and they don’t really know that the other personalities exist—at least not until a hell of a lot of therapy is completed.
In my own case, this recognition was present all the time. My various selves knew full well that the others existed. They just didn’t like one another very much. In fact, they actively tried to destroy one another for awhile.
Today, though, most people would see me as rather well adjusted, and would be deeply surprised by this quirk of mine. When I once described it to a new friend who happened to be in the business of understanding human behavior, he nodded wisely, and congratulated me on having overcome it, of having fully integrated my various selves into this present model of mental health.
What he didn’t understand, though, is that my current mental health wasn’t a matter of overcoming my diverse selves. Not only did I not get over it; I pursued it then and continue to pursue it now. In fact, I’m really really good at it these days.
To this day, at any given moment, I’m aware that there are lots of different selves operating in me. I know all of them pretty intimately, in fact. I’m not kidding in the least when I tell you that this is the sole reason why I am never, ever bored in life, no matter how bland the real-world circumstances are. If I am stuck in a slow-moving line for hours at a time, I am perfectly happy because there is always an exceedingly interesting inner drama playing out in me, one I can eavesdrop on any time I choose.
Moreover, I now have a strong hunch that the same thing holds true of everyone else. Unless I somehow have gone through life meeting only oddballs like myself, when I look around I see that everybody changes from moment to moment. Although I never, ever try to convince other people that they should see themselves in the same way that I see myself, it does allow me to view other people a good deal more sympathetically.
When people snarl at the world, they are almost always snarling at some other aspect of themselves. And the beast on the freeway may well become a docile lamb once he's had his dinner and a nice back rub. It's not me he's angry at; it's some inner creature he's projected onto me, the poor fellow.
The spriritual benefit in this for me is this: because “I” change moment to moment, based on complex matrix of situation and chemistry and memory and chance, there is no reason to ever take my “self” very seriously. Within the span of a few moments, I’m aware that I am by turns a father, a husband, a friend, a brother, a boss, an underling, a democrat, a Minnesotan, a devil, an angel. And each of these selves is very different from the other, with an entirely different character. There is no single, eternal “I” at all.
The difference between the crazy Mercurious of years ago and the crazy present model is a very simple one.
I used to hate some of my selves, largely because I didn’t’ know them very well. Now, I know them quite well, and invite them over to dinner regularly.
Their table manners have improved dramatically, a change which began as soon as I welcomed them to the table.