Performing the Self

In Hunting Magic Eels I describe what I call "the Ache," the suite of dissatisfactions and emotional ailments we experience in a secular, godless, post-Christian world. As I say in the book, "God may be dead but we sure do miss him."

Since the publication of Hunting Magic Eels I've come to ponder more and more a particular aspect of the Ache, what I'll call "the performance of the self." 

Here's how Matthew Crawford describes the performance of the self in his book The World Beyond Your Head:

Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: the feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one's character...[Today] the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like Kilowatt hours--the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness--weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self. We call this depression.

Alain Ehrenberg describes this as "the weariness of the self," how the performance of the modern self is an exhausting and depleting project. Ehrenberg writes, "Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself."

Summarizing, what I'm describing as "performing the self" is, in the words of Crawford, "the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self" which leads to "the weariness of the self," chronic fatigue at "having to become oneself." 

This modern ailment--performing the self--is one of the reasons mindfulness meditation is experienced by many as such a relief. In practicing mindfulness my ego rests in a non-performative space. I am no longer performing the self, my self is simply present. In Christian contemplative prayer, we practice a similar type of rest. Contemplative prayer is learning to hold the self before God in a non-productive posture. Sabbath is a similar type of non-productive experience, where productivity is set aside for the enjoyment of God, life, and relationships.

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