The mythology of self

In our pursuit of self-identity we accumulate physical preferences such as hairstyle and body shape, various beliefs, likes, dislikes, and psychological habits. In general, we consider these accumulations personality, and once gathered, we protect personality with great devotion.

In addition to personality, we also accumulate material objects, what we commonly refer to as stuff. Stuff is nearly as important to self as personality, and we preserve and defend it vigorously. An entire body of law is built upon protection of stuff. In the past such laws covered material things, like gold, jewels, tables, chairs, land and other possessions. More recently, the law also protects non-material ideas, trademarks, performances and patents. Upon death accumulated stuff passes to heirs and beneficiaries, who may then do with it as they so choose. The basis for such American law extends from 17th Century England; the concept of private property is so firmly rooted in American society as to be a fundamental principle of society.

There are those who hoard stuff, an extreme behavior that’s now a regular feature of Reality TV. Hoarders are just an exaggerated version of us all as we attempt to compensate for the uncomfortable truth of selflessness. Since personality is accumulated, a mere construction, no single piece accounts for self. Piece upon piece builds upon who we think we are and we buttress that construction with name, history and memory. It all seems very solid, very stable and real, but of course like any construction, it can fall apart and always does. In the end, nothing is left of what we call self. This is the truth of selflessness.

Selflessness does not mean that conventional existence does not exist. We all remember loved ones and friends who were in our lives and then were gone. And as our mythical conventional selves appear to exist, we engage in a variety of actions which bring happiness or discomfort to others; thus our mythological self matters. Like co-inhabitants of an extended daydream, we slide through time together, persistent yet temporary accumulated patterns within the matrix of the present moment.

The stuff we accumulate has meaning, but that meaning is also accumulated and temporary. My father, for example, collected elephants; wood, stone, metal, plastic, glass, ceramic, new, old, large and small. By the time he was 90, he had close to 400, and could tell a story about each and every one. The elephants had become part of his mythology of self. After he died, we kept some and decided to donate and sell the others. A young girl of nine stopped by our sale with her parents, and she happened to love elephants. A dozen or so walked out the door with her to accumulate new meaning and become part of her mythological self. This is how it’s always been with stuff.

Another Reality Show is about storage lockers; people bid on the stuff people forgot they had in storage or could not pay for. In this case meaning is money; winning bidders pick through the stuff of others’ lives speculating on what type of person put the stuff in storage and looking for things of value they can sell. As they conjure up each locker’s mythological owner, the activity is truly dream-like; nothing remains but accumulated stuff and nobody knows what will be found.

Like any dream, the mythological self can be both creepy and exciting.

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