Onions, Not Artichokes
Over the past few centuries (although the roots go back further), in the West, we have largely lost our belief in God or any sense of a given cosmic order. As a result there is no longer any overarching “sacred structure” that holds the world together. So we are left on our own as individuals in a world without any pre-determined order that tells us who we are in that world, or that gives us a sense of security and “fit” within a wider scheme of things.
Where, then, do we look to find moral guidance and direction? We look inside. We look not to the heavens or the hills, but into our own hearts. We stop looking outside ourselves to God, or the wisdom of the past, and start to look into our own inner emotions and desires, as Freud taught us to do.
If only we were able to peel off every layer of expectation laid upon us by society, the artificial constructions of identity, gender, class and occupation, the irritating demands that others place upon us, we would find our true selves hidden within, like a cook preparing an artichoke, peeling away the rough leaves to find the hidden tender heart inside.
Yet what if we are in fact more like onions than artichokes? What if, when we peel away the expectations of others, the roles we play in society, when we get to the centre, there is nothing there? What if there is no mysterious “self” waiting to be discovered, no essence of “me” that is stifled by the people who expect me to play roles prescribed for me? In an onion, the layers are not disposable intrusions to be jettisoned to find some inner core — they are the onion itself. What if the relations and roles we play — as citizens, neighbours, spouses, friends, partners, parents — do in fact make us who we are? ...
When Jesus was asked the question “what is the greatest commandment?” he didn’t say: “Be Yourself.” He said: “Love God and love your neighbour.” The Christian wisdom is that paradoxically we find our true self when we lose it, by being turned, not inwards in self-obsession, but outwards in love for the God who made us and our neighbours who need us.