What do you mean, “self”?

This has come up a few times in the last couple days, in trying to define self care we must first define self, and self is a big concept.  My mind immediately goes to Kierkegaard’s relational litany in The Sickness Unto Death.

I think I can finally say what this means to me is that each relationship has a living character, or emergent property that arises from the interaction of two individuals.  The self may be thought of as that which an individual brings to all their relationships.

And then I thought of atomic identity.  In Chemistry we learned that the reactive behavior of an atom is dictated by its electron configuration.  But the electron configuration is dictated by the number of protons, and it is in the number of protons that an element is identified.  An element with a different number of electrons from protons is an Ion.  An element with a nonstandard number of neutrons is an isotope.  But if you change the number of protons, you have a different element.  (And it turns out this is happening a lot more than I would have thought… diamonds are not forever!  And bananas lose some potassium in their short spans.)

I wouldn’t quite agree with Kierkegaard that the self is the spirit.  One reason Mormons are considered heretics is we believe God has a physical body, that Christ is his son, and the Holy Spirit is not embodied.  I suppose one could argue that makes Him incomplete.  But it is curiously necessary to the aspect of God filling the universe and dwelling in each heart.  Further, Mormon cosmology posits an uncreated particle in each living soul called intelligence, which was enspirited into the family of God just as spirit is embodied into mortal existence.  At death the spirit is disembodied, which for the departed seems is a kind of bondage.  Perhaps the Holy Ghost does not feel limited because He has never been embodied, and He has a fulness of joy as Christ did in fulfilling the Father’s will.

But it came up on Sunday whether we can be happy without the gospel, and what people pursue for happiness who do not know God.  Skipping to the end, I would say it has to do with how clear their understanding is of who they are.  I think one can be happy within the sphere of what they believe is their self.  But joy is the happiness of increasing in knowledge of God, and very often knowledge increases in learning His will and doing it.  Knowing is not always a mental pursuit, but an experiential one.  Intelligence is the light of truth.  Another Mormon heresy is that God is, in the end, a soul who has attained virtually infinite light and truth.

It is not the case that only the relationship to God matters.  God gave us this life to be with others, to inhabit our bodies, and I have once speculated, to come to know him for who He is and not for all he can do.  Our intrinsic character (and here I mean unique properties, not moral character) is something our accomplishments are mere reflections of.  It is the level on which all humans are equal, but also irreplaceable and worthy.

So is it better to reduce the definition of self to the smallest indivisible particle, or to embrace a wider and wider definition of self?  As I was once impressed to write:   My true self is not in the parts of me, but in that of which I am part.  Coming back to Kierkegaard, my relations.

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