The Limitations of Self

Water Lilies (1914-1926) at MoMAWe are each limited by our perceptions of the world. We get only one perspective, one pair of eyes. And imagination, perhaps the only route to being in another’s shoes, is constrained by our own experience and knowledge base.

The self is bounded by itself.

This can, of course, be very damaging.

“Self-absorbed,” as one writer put it today during a discussion among essayists and fiction writers. We all felt concerned about being so stuck in our own heads. So preoccupied with our inner lives, rather than the outer world.

And with such awareness of the inner life, we felt necessarily frustrated by our failures to fully imagine and anticipate that of others.

Each of us experienced frequent reminders of this failure. A long-time neighbor whose name is unknown. A relative whose experience of a central grief differs radically from our own. A stranger’s stoicism mistaken for antipathy when, in fact, we later discover it was a feeling of intense fondness, coupled with fear.

But I didn’t like the tone of self-blame that seeped into the conversation. How terribly narcissistic we were, they said. To not see beforehand that someone felt that way or thought that way, to see it instead through our own lens– Really. How selfish.

No, no, no, was my response.

“It is too bad,” I said, “that we can be so limited by our own perceptions and beliefs, seeing everything through our own lens. But that’s all we really have–we are this self, seeing through these eyes. This lens is who we are. It’s all we have to work with.”

One of the writers, a couple decades older than me, gave me a smile. “That’s very compassionate.”

And I blushed and laughed.

But it’s true, isn’t it? Limitations are human. As Deborah L. Tolman (2012) wrote in her research article “Female Adolescents, Sexual Empowerment, and Desire,” those who have been “marginalized by mainstream society had different perspectives on and experiences of reality that were central to what they could observe or know, and who they became.”

The self is not only limited by its experience and perspectives then. But its growth–its cognition and identity and perception–is constrained by this, too.

And yes, this leads to our greatest faults. Our worst and most hurtful oversights as a species. Because the wealthy cannot know the experience of the poor–and vice versa–and because a white person cannot know what it is to grow up as black in America–because we are so constrained by our experiences, we are liable to fail each other sometimes. In small ways and large.

Sometimes devastatingly so.

But this distinctiveness has a brighter side, too. Our individuality may be limiting–but it is also what gives art and connection its beautiful diversity. What would Claude Monet’s Water Lilies be without the unique, and limited, selfhood of the man who could see in this way?

We should all strive to imagine the feelings and experiences of others. But we should value our own distinct lenses, our own unique way of seeing the world. For through that diversity, we can more fully represent the range of human experience–and perhaps catch glimpses into those other lives beyond our own.

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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