Mis-taken Identity

In my recent book The Compassionate Intentions of Illness I quote a passage from D.H. Lawrence on ‘Healing’:

                    I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.

                    And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly that I am ill.

                    I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self.

                    And the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help.

                    And patience, and a certain difficult repentance

                    long  difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing

                        of oneself

                     from the endless repetition of the mistake

                     which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

What does Lawrence mean by the word ‘mistake’ and the sanctification of that mistake?  My own interpretation is that the mistake – best written mis-take – refers to how from so early on in our lives we are mistaken for our particular qualities or behaviours and that confusion of our soul, our true emotional self with such phenomena are deep wounds to the unique self that is each one of us.

Whether the mis-take is about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ qualities or behaviours a great darkness descends on us and, until sometime in adulthood when we have the time and safety to examine the mistake, we are compelled to create protectors to reduce the threats that the mistakes pose.  The most common mis-take is that a person is their behaviour and from that confusion arises such judgements as ‘you’re a difficult person’. ‘you’re a bully’, ‘you’re a bold boy’, ‘you’re a clever kid’, ‘you’re a good girl’.  Much more harsh judgements are ‘you’re bad’, ‘sad’, ‘mad’, ‘insane’, ‘selfish’, ‘ neurotic’, ‘psychotic’, ‘lazy’, ‘no-good’, ‘depressive’, ‘a waste of space’.  What is often not appreciated is that the person who is told that she is ‘so good’ or ‘so clever’ is as much threatened as the person who is told that they are ‘bad’, ‘impossible’ and so on.  Suicide is a common phenomenon around examination times and arises from fears of falling short of the perceived unrealistic expectations and falling off the pedestal that the person has been put upon.  Similarly, individuals who are perfectionistic in their behaviours believe that any mistake will result in rejection by the person who has mistaken them for getting things right all of the time; as a consequence they will strive relentlessly to be perfect.  The ‘realization of life’s mistake’ that is required for this person is that ‘I’m not my behaviour and that perfection lies in my unique being and presence and that mistakes and failures are wonderful opportunities to learn more about the world’.  The latter process takes a long, long time because the person’s intense endeavours to be perfect have been ‘sanctified’ over and over again within her home, classrooms and workplaces.  Nobody corrected the mis-take and affirmed the person for her unique presence and demonstrated that behaviour is a means of understanding and exploring our inner and outer worlds but it is not a means of proving myself and it certainly is not the self.

Arising from their earlier childhood experiences, many men believe (mistakenly) that they are their work and a high percentage of them die quite soon after retiring from work, even though there were no indications of ill-health at the time of retirement.  A typical response to retirement is ‘I have nothing left to live for’.  Sadly, these men’s addiction to work would have resulted in poor marital relationships, strained relationships with their children and the endless repetition of the mistake in their daily work life.  Work is a wonderful expression of the immense power of our nature but I am not my work and that realization means I can enjoy my work in a way that I don’t live to work but I do work to live.  Work organisations believe that those addicted to work – highly engaged – are a great asset (thereby sanctifying the mistake), but the reality is that they are a great threat to the wellbeing of others and are not mature and effective managers.

What does Lawrence mean by the ‘soul, the deep emotional self’?  Intuitively, we have a sense of ourselves as being unique, as being unlike any other, a distinctiveness that cannot be pinned down to anything tangible, such as particular dimensions of our physical appearance, or a particular type of intelligence, or a particular way of believing, or a particular way of relating, or a particular way of feeling.  The self as unique presence has a physical mirror in the uniqueness of my DNA, and more observably in my fingerprints. My self is unrepeatable and as a unique presence, as inviolate wholeness, is present from the moment of conception.  There is no greater wounding to the self, to the soul, than to mistake the self for how we look, what we feel, think, say and do.  The redemption of the self from the endless repetition of the mis-take is our most urgent responsibility.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author/National and International Speaker. His new books The Compassionate Intentions of Illness and Relationship, Relationship, The Heart of a Mature Society are now available.