I have postponed writing on this topic because I am not certain I will say what I mean clearly, or even that I have a clear meaning yet to say. This will be an essay in the classic sense, an “attempt” to work out an idea through writing.
The relationship with self I hope my children have has nothing to do with the now-fading fad of self-esteem. Nor is it the obvious and instinctive self-love that leads us to look out for our own interests, in whatever twisted form that may take. Rather, it is the ability to see one’s self in proper relation to all else.
A child naturally progresses through at least two phases, with the potential for a third. The first stage is oriented outwards. An infant does not realize that he exists as a person—his eyes are windows and he looks outwards on the world. If he grabs a toy, it is not because he wants the toy, but because he wants the toy. The focus is external, even while the action is selfish, and therefore the evil is small. Perhaps it would be best to remain in this state of childlike humility, but few, if any, of us can.
But gradually, the windows become interspersed with mirrors. The child becomes conscious of his own thinking and looks within to see what is there. Even if he takes a good action, he is conscious of his own goodness in doing it—and that very consciousness is ****ing. But he cannot see beyond the mirrors; he does not realize that there is a world out there of other people, each with their own windows and mirrors.
Many people never grow past this point. In Middlemarch, Casaubon has reached an advanced age and knowledge of sorts without ever realizing that anyone could legitimately look at the world differently than he does; if you asked him if he was selfish he would certainly deny it, and yet he calmly ruins his young wife’s life because he simply cannot conceive of anyone’s needs or perspectives differing from his own.
The third, quite optional, stage is to realize you are only one self among many other selfs; to realize each self is in its own galaxy and that while we can never fully understand one another, we must make the effort to see things from each other’s point of view—without ever losing hold of our own selves, which God himself has entrusted us with. And with that comes a great responsibility to do the best we can with what we have been given.
Growing into this perspective takes time, and quiet. It takes much freedom with responsibility. It has many enemies: empty, incessant praise; excessive criticism; constant entertainment; constant direction. A child needs to not have his initiative and curiosity drained out of him and at the same time receive the guidance and perspective to grow beyond himself.