We are born into community. We grow inside another human being and spend the first few years of our lives in absolute dependence on that person and on the others who closely surround us. The ones near to us provide us with more than our bodily needs. Our very self - our sense of who we are - is primarily built as we see ourselves reflected back in the words and behaviour of others.
Before we can talk, this reflection is, obviously, non verbal. It is kinesthetic. In the way we are held, in the regularity with which we are fed and cleaned, in the warmth -physical and emotional - of our surroundings, we find the earliest information about the world and how we relate to it. Later, we listen to the words said to us and about us. Later still we observe, and with a growing theory of mind, are able to perceive other people as separate personalities with their own points of view, and we are able to build ourselves by comparison, identification and imitation. As our perception broadens we take on the mores of our family, tribe and culture. Sometimes a sudden shock or a moment of revelation can have a deep and lasting effect on our sense of self, but usually it is the words and actions of others, repeated day after day, year after year, which forms who we are, and gives us a sense of being a separate entity with a distinct and unique personality.
The stories told by others about us shape us when they become stories we tell to ourselves. We are, for example, impervious to our schoolmates calling us "loser" right up to the point that we acquiesce and say to ourselves, "yes, I am a loser". We are reflected back initially from a small group of people, but the range of "reflectors" gets larger as we grow older. Firstly it consists of our mother and the rest of our family; then our wider family, and our peer group. Then the various sub groups we identify with, the heroes we try and emulate and the general voice of our culture. The process of building a self follows a fairly predictable pattern, spelled out in detail, and with differing emphases by, for example, Piaget, Erickson, and James Fowler. I don't want to go into too much detail here, other than to point out some implications for our spiritual development:
1. Spiritual development is impossible without community. It doesn't matter, I suppose, what that community is, but we will not grow as people in the values we aspire to unless those values are reflected back to us. We therefore need a community where people are at least trying to do this.
2. Spiritual development is ALWAYS ethical development. We are reflectors for all those we come into contact with, and are therefore partially responsible for their sense of self. It MATTERS how we treat them.
3. There is nothing in our sense of self that is unchangeable. The stories about ourselves that we have learned to parrot from others can all be changed...
4. ...and from 3. it follows that there is nothing in our sense of self that is, ultimately, permanent. "We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye..."
5. You need your sense of self to grow as a sentient being, but don't go getting too attached to it. Don't go getting all protective and indignant about your "real self". One day you will need to put it aside as a butterfly puts aside its cocoon.