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Category: Identity

Richard Dawkins Part 1: The Worth of a Human Life

It is nearly 48 hours since the latest furore surrounding Richard Dawkins. There are two things I have noticed over the last couple of days [I started to write this as one posts but it’s got a bit long, I’ll do a second post*]:

The world has divided into three camps:
1) Those who are ardently opposed to Richard Dawkins
and looking for any excuse to blindly oppose him.
2) Those who are ardent supporters of Richard Dawkins and will blindly follow him wherever he goes.
3) Those who were largely ambivalent to Richard Dawkins but find this particular excursion into the philosophy of human morality repugnant.

In the third group there are many who are parents of children with Down’s Syndrome who are keen to stress that their daughter or son’s worth can’t be measured by their contribution to society. There are people with Down’s Syndrome who read his comments and find that they themselves are being viewed as worth-less to society.

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We have as a society moved in the name of progress to view people as commodity. A person’s worth is increasingly seen by those who govern as the “contribution that they make to the economy”. By someone such as Professor Dawkins a person’s worth is measured by how much can be contributed to the things he personally values, i.e. Evolutionary Biology. This is why he values those with Aspergers as being worthy of life.

This whole ‘scandal’ has been an opportunity for personal reflection. I come from a family in which Down’s Syndrome and Asperger’s are quite prevalent along with other kinds of “special needs”. I have been looking around my family and imagining this “lens of worth” with which to view the world. Which of my relatives are worthy of life and which ones are not? My uncle recently passed away as a happy and fulfilled pensioner [and the sentence shouldn’t need to continue with the words ‘with Down’s Syndrome.’ That should be enough!] The grief in our family was and is tangible. The life, the shared experiences, the jokes that were shared together in thick Scots accents left a huge impact upon us all.

As a foetus, I was screened. I was weighed and found not wanting. This is actually untrue. My mum says that she went along with the screening because she was told that she had to because of the risk but that there is no way she would have terminated the pregnancy. The decision was already made. My life would have worth whether an academic, a prince or a pauper, whether Asperger’s, Down’s or – whatever it is that I am despite my lack of labels.

[*edit – I started writing about the press and the way they report some individuals as individuals and some as representative of their group but it was too depressing. Not sure I’ll bother with part 2.]

Mathematics

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Personal Identity 5: Christian Identity

As we’ve progressed through this series on ‘identity’, we’ve turned increasingly towards the concept of ‘Christian identity’. How do we view ourselves as ‘Christians’ within a Christian community?

As Christians, the world is viewed in light of our relationship with God. This naturally affects the relationship people have with other people who also have a relationship with God. Relationship is at the heart of Christian identity. Our identity is formed through the way we relate to God through Christ. When the first Christians described themselves as ‘followers of the way’ their identity was firmly routed in their ongoing journey with Christ. That was the way in which they identified themselves. It was others from outside who originally called those first followers ‘Christians’. I use this to illustrate the deeply personal nature of the Christian faith. It is centred around a relationship with God and an ongoing task; take up your cross and follow me.

Over the past few days I’ve mentioned the existential crisis for every ‘goth’: what if I’m not goth enough? It is also at the heart of many followers of the way. What if I’m not a very good Christian? If I am honest, I have those doubts most days. I’m still awaiting the day when the diocese send someone round to my house. They will knock on my door, come into my office, go to the filing cabinet, take my holy orders and inform me that a mistake was made four years ago. “Sorry mate, you’re just not a very good Christian”. I think this is at the heart of Doctor Ruth’s post on Saturday about imitating Christ: we are called to be Christlike, we are not called to be Christ.

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Experience is a key component of our Christian identity. When someone is certain of their faith, it can be a benchmark that others will be unconsciously compared to. When someone’s experience of God bears little relation to our experience of God we can either question our experience or theirs. As the diagram illustrates, the way we relate to others often leads to tribalism.

This kind of tribalism leads to the familiar conflict between followers of the way that can often take precedence over the journey. “They are not real Christians…”

Personal Identity 4: To ‘Imitate Christ’.

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Robb asked me to contribute to his blog because a lot of his recent writings about identy are the culmination of years of conversations we have had together.

I remember as a teenager starting to read ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by the Christian mystic Thomas á Kempis, and giving up after about 4 pages due to feeling completely disheartened – no way could I ever live up to this ideal! I probably should have learned more about the mystics first before starting to read it, but that’s a whole other subject… In both my personal experience and in my professional work as a clinical psychologist, I have found that many Christians have highly unrealistic expectations of themselves, which has a significant impact on their sense of self and on their emotional wellbeing and functioning. This seems particularly so in some churches or Christian families where it is unacceptable to be sinful in any way, or where even the briefest unkind or unpleasant thought is ‘as bad as committing the sin itself’ (based on a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21ff).

During my training I came across ‘Self-Discrepancy Theory’ (Higgins,1987), which came to mind again during my discussions with Robb and got me thinking about identity and these struggles faced by myself and many other Christians. The theory proposes that we have a number of distinct domains within our identity, including the ‘Actual Self’ (how I view myself now), the ‘Ideal Self’ (how I hope to be), and the ‘Ought Self’ (how I should be, according to my sense of duty, obligation and responsibility). The theory also suggests we have a domain for each of these Selves from the standpoint of a significant other (e.g., how I believe my mother actually sees me, or how I believe my husband ideally wants me to be – no comments Robb!!).

The theory goes on to suggest that the greater the difference, or discrepancy, between an Actual self-state and an Ideal or Ought self-state, the more likely the development of negative emotional states, including low self esteem, shame and guilt, depression and anxiety.

So what does this mean for Christians? The difficulty is for many of us, especially those like myself who are ‘cradle Christians’, is that we are taught from a very young age that our Ideal Self is Christ himself. And with this self-state representation, who would not have a huge discrepancy between their sense of self as they are, and the self that they believe they should be? And even more troubling, what are our beliefs about how our fellow Christians perceive both our Actual Selves and our Ideal/Ought Selves? No wonder many Christians become guilty, anxious and depressed.

But what does it really mean to imitate Christ, or to have him as a representation of an Ideal self? I can’t believe that it means I should strive to be a Jewish male itinerant rabbi! Nor do I believe I should be striving for perfection – I constantly see the serious psychological consequences of such attempts in my therapy room. This may be a question better left to the theologians than for a simple psychologist like myself, but I am drawn to the narrative of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane – a moment where He too experienced anguish and uncertainty, and questioned God’s call. It is in this, and many other recorded moments of intimacy, genuineness and authenticity that we might see how we too could discover God’s call on our own lives.

Furthermore, perhaps some of the key areas for psychological therapy for depression or anxiety, based on Self-Discrepancy Theory, may also guide our thinking:
1. Identifying and challenging any unhelpful representations within Actual Self;
2. Developing acceptance and self-compassion;
3. Exploring Ideal and Ought Selves, and developing new and more realistic/helpful future-self representations. This is particularly important where there have been significant life changes due to trauma, loss, illness, etc.

If we can start to be more realistic and authentic about who we really are, develop both acceptance and self-compassion about the things we can’t change or feel less positive about (or worry that others feel less positive about), and have a more realistic and helpful sense of who God is calling us to be, maybe we can stop feeling so guilty, anxious and depressed, and start living ‘life in all its fullness’ instead.