On Being Whole

The research I have been working on of late has led me to read some writers in the fields of Psychology and Religion from earlier decades. One of these is Erik Erikson, who wrote extensively about the development of identity. In his book Identity Youth and Crisis, published in 1968, he used the terms “totality” and “wholeness” in discussing identity development:

As a Gestalt, then, wholeness emphasizes a sound, organic, progressive mutuality between diversified functions and parts within an entirety, the boundaries of which are open and fluid. Totality, on the contrary, evokes a Gestalt in which an absolute boundary is emphasized: given a certain arbitrary delineation, nothing that belongs inside must be left outside, nothing that must be outside can be tolerated inside. A totality is as absolutely inclusive as it is utterly exclusive–whether or not the category-to-be-made-absolute is a logical one, and whether or not the constituent parts really have an affinity for one another. 

The fundamental notion here, I believe, is the difference between a strongly organized sense of self that is adaptable to change and one that is less adaptable to change. Boundaries, in and of themselves are not inherently bad. As we develop and mature through different stages of the life cycle, boundaries and rules are often what keep us safe and secure, helping us to maintain a positive developmental trajectory. Without established boundaries, could a 3 year old be trusted to inherently understand the dangers of running out into the street without first checking for oncoming traffic?

Boundaries also help us to form our sense of self and our place in the world, they help us to define what we are and what we are not. Problems ensue, however, when those boundaries become either too restrictive or are held so rigidly that an identity crisis can ensue when life experience challenges previously held assumptions. Change is the one thing that we can expect to be a constant in this life. Adaptability to change, therefore, is an essential component of maintaining health and well-being. If I draw my sense of identity from rigidly held boundaries of what I am and am not, without a strong internally organized sense of how all my experience and knowledge fits together to form the person I am becoming, then I am much more likely to have struggles with my sense of identity as I encounter change and work to interpret and resolve new experiences with my worldview.

Gordon Allport, in his book The Individual and his Religion, published in 1951, wrote about religious identity development and the importance of considering religious identity in psychological research, as it is often the most deep-seated and unexamined aspect of individual (as well as collective) identity. He argued for the importance of developing a mature sense of religious identity, one that relied less on rules, regulations, and boundaries, and more on an internalized sense of spiritual principles. This mature sense of religious identity is less concerned with convincing others to think and believe in the same way and more concerned with helping others to come to their own internalized sense of peace and wholeness with their religious and spiritual identity; there is a basic recognition that diversity of religious experience parallels the diversity of individuals themselves.

An interesting aspect of studying to become a counselor is the necessity of self-examination as part of the learning process. How can I lead someone else where I have yet to go? One of the things I have noticed about myself is how quickly I often rush to judgement of another human being. I assume that I know a person’s motivation, or their character, or some other aspect of their identity based on an incredibly limited perspective. And I do not believe this is a problem unique to my experience; I think many of us have a natural tendency to rush to judgement.

Jesus talks about this in the Holy Bible when he condemns the hypocrisy of pointing out the speck in a neighbors eye while failing to recognize the log in one’s own eye.

I can’t help but wonder, how much conflict would dissipate if we all spent more time resolving our own problems before rushing to the judgment of others?

Jesus also talks about the need to see things from the perspective of another, the idea of walking a mile in the shoes of another.

How many problems could be resolved if more of us learned to see things from an alternate perspective?

I was thinking about all this today when I heard part of a piece on NPR about the need for humanities in higher education. Last week, PBS Newshour interviewed Charles Murray, the author of Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. He talked about the need for a humanities-based education that focuses more on development of a strong individual sense of self and one’s place in the world in order to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing economy. As opposed to teaching specific skills that are geared toward workplace needs that will likely change by the time students are ready to enter the workforce, this approach would focus more on helping students to develop a strong sense of identity that will lead to continued successful adaptation to change, the only constant in life.

Boundaries can be helpful, and they can be comforting in the sense of security that they often grant us. But they cannot be the totality of our identity. If I draw my sense of self from external boundaries as opposed to an internally organized sense of self that works to constantly interpret and reconcile new experiences with my ever-expanding worldview, change will be much harder for me to endure.

I, for one, am working to become more whole. I have spent too many years not knowing myself.