The First Experience of Self: Separate Self
by Marc Gafni
A puzzle piece with no puzzle.
The first experience of self is commonly known as separate self, ego self, or small self. This is the experience of being a skin-encapsulated ego, separate from other, separate from Source, separate from the larger context. Separate self suggests the experience of being a puzzle piece when there is no larger puzzle.
The puzzle piece feels its unique contours and yearns to connect. Yet many collective voices, including much of contemporary social and psychological theory, tell the puzzle piece there is no larger puzzle. Naturally the puzzle piece feels great angst and pain when told that there is no larger puzzle. The puzzle piece is told by Neo-Darwinians and Freudians that its entire raison d’etre is to survive. The telos-driven, erotic desire for survival is then denuded of its mystery. All of its altruistic desires are reduced to Darwinian survival gambits or Freudian attempts to fulfill on the pleasure principle. You think you want to be close to your mother, says Freud. Really, you just want the pleasure of her milk. The neo-Darwinian says you are moved to cooperate simply because it’s a more effective way of meeting your selfish goals. You have no essential connection to a larger whole. Imagine the puzzle piece trying to walk. It is wobbly and unstable. It has only itself to rely on. It is not held in the context of the larger puzzle. Therefore it lacks stability or ground.
The puzzle piece is devastated when its deepest interior longings and drives are reduced to selfish survival by modernity’s dogma disguised as science. That’s the experience of separate self. Separate self is naturally incapable of forming Evolutionary We Space. Since each self is intrinsically held to be separate, any formation of We Space is artificial at best.
This core myth of separation was and remains the reigning paradigm in economics, science, religion and politics. It has been this way for the last several hundred years. For example, western democracy is based on the core principle of separate self. Every human being is seen as a separate self, or in modern parlance, an individual. The government only exists because a social contract gives the government limited power in order to insure the right of the individual. As political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, reminded us several hundred years ago, separate selves are in a natural state of war. The social contract made to create states and governments can suspend the state of war for the sake of the selfish gain of every individual. But the We Space of the state can never entirely overcome the essential alienation of separate selves. Separate selves cannot form a genuine We Space. That is why western democracies virtually never access the bold power necessary to end outrageous pain. No one made this more apparent then Samantha Power in what, I think, is one of the most important books of the twentieth century. In A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power reviews American state department cables, which debated possible responses to the seven attempted genocides of the twentieth century. These include the Armenian Genocide by Turkey, the destruction of the European Jews by Germany, the ethnic cleansing by Serbia in Kosovo, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the massacre of the Tutsi by the Hutus in Rwanda, and the gassing of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. In each of these cases the United States could have implemented a range of possible responses from strong public censure to military intervention. In each case the United States did virtually nothing. We were faced with outrageous pain. Yet we were not able to respond with outrageous love. We were unable to form an evolutionary We Space. We were unable to manifest a We Space whose collective intelligence demanded outrageous acts of love in the face of outrageous pain.
Democracy in its classical form is not based on the formation of Evolutionary We Space. Instead, separate selves give up some limited rights to a government so that the government will facilitate maximal life, liberty and happiness for the separate selves in its domain. Separate selves do not know how to find sustained access to the outrageous love that lives as the animating and driving essence of reality.