Does not being able to live with ourselves mean something like an ongoing experience of self-accusation or self-punishment? What does it mean about the self?
Recently a friend of mine said, “I couldn’t live with myself if I did that”. It struck me what a powerful saying this is.
Over the last couple of weeks Sarah Luczaj and I have been having a dialogue, through posts on this blog, about the nature of the self and the organism. It struck me how this phrase relates to this topic.
Saying that, “I couldn’t live with myself, if I did [X]” isn’t a philosophical definition of the self, but I do think it is a powerful statement of part of our experience. I’d like to reflect on this statement.
I and Myself
This statement reflects a split: there is an “I” that can’t live with a “self”. There is an “I” that judges the self — and finds it wanting.
This is the experience we are talking about when we talk about ‘conscience’ — and its closely related experience of temptation. A temptation is a conflict of desires, usually categorised as higher and lower (with the lower usually having to do with sensory gratification, at least in the Evangelical Christianity that I grew up in). Conscience implies a scale of value in the conflict. The desires are not equal: it is implied that we should do one thing and not the other. We are tempted to go with the desire that our conscience calls lower.
A temptation means that we have options; for a temptation to be real it needs to be possible for us to realise our desire. We may dream of the impossible, but we are only tempted to do what is possible.
When we say that we couldn’t live with ourselves if we did something, we are usually not seriously contemplating suicide. “Living” means something like self-acceptance or unity. Not being able to live with ourselves means something like an ongoing experience of self-accusation or self-punishment — feeling bad,perhaps even being physically nauseated recalling what we have done.
This experience of living contrasts with the experience of temptation, unity contrasted with being split.
Living with Myself
To say that we couldn’t live with ourselves if we did a particular thing implies that we haven’t done it. It implies that normally we do live with ourselves, that we respect principles that we hold dear, that there are core values which we don’t violate. It implies that my “I” usually gets on well enough with my “self”.
Sometimes we’re wrong.
Sometimes we give into temptation; we find that we do something we disapproved of. Sometimes having done it we feel worse than we could have imagined. Sometimes we find that it isn’t actually such a big deal.
It turns out that we can be wrong about what we can live with having done. We can find that our conscience has been hyper-sensitive — or not nearly sensitive enough. In either case, we learn more about who we are. We may learn that we are capable of a visceral revulsion we wouldn’t have expected, or that we can feel a sense of liberation when we expected disgust.
I’m wondering what has your experience of temptation and learning about your self been? Have you found liberation when you expected to feel bad about doing something? Perhaps you have found that doing something you felt would be no big deal lead to an intensely negative reaction (or a positive one)? I look forward to hearing your experience of living with yourself.
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