Psychologist uses spirituality to explore the ‘authentic self’

Psychologist uses spirituality to explore the ‘authentic self’

Image from "The Tao of Ordinariness" by Robert Wicks. (Credit: Image courtesy Oxford University Press.)

"People are drawn in when we express ourselves in a way that is appropriately transparent, honest, and hopeful," says Robert Wicks.

[Editor’s note: Robert Wicks is one of those Catholic laity who’ve become well-known and valued in ecclesiastical circles, despite making his fame and fortune outside them. He’s a clinical psychologist whose work has long explored the intersection between psychology and spirituality, who’s brought those insights to such disparate challenges as debriefing aid workers evacuated from Rwanda in 1994, as well as counseling war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now an emeritus professor at Loyola University in Maryland, Wicks is a 1996 recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross, the highest honor for laity in the Church. Charles Camosy recently spoke with Wicks about his new book, The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age. ]

Camosy: Many of us, I think, have a deep sense our contemporary culture pushes against living as our authentic self–and your counter-cultural book is helpfully geared toward us recovering it. But as a seasoned academic you are no doubt aware of the arguments against there being any notion of an authentic self apart from various public performances. What gives you the confidence to proceed as if there is something that is authentically “us” in the first place?

Wicks: Personality can be defined as a constant, unique source of how we view ourselves and the world.  My challenge in this book is to help people look at how their personality or the reputation they have with themselves was formed as well as to explore how living out of this sense of identity is rewarding to them and those with whom they interact.

Robert Wicks. (Credit: Photo courtesy of author.)

In addition, I try to make a case for at least searching within ourselves to uncover/become more clear about our primary signature strengths as well as search for those “lesser” gifts that may have not been given enough attention because others discouraged it.  As part of the process of doing this, I also encourage the readers to be more aware of the influences they are trying to please in their efforts for acceptance.

Most of us naturally take note of the reactions of those around us and enjoy being liked and respected.  However, one of the basic questions my book, The Tao of Ordinariness: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Narcissistic Age, seeks to raise is: How much energy is being expended in the effort to conform to others’ expectations and, in the process, how many talents and desires that are generative are being set aside because of this?

OK, what do you see as the primary challenges to recovering this authentic sense in our current cultural moment? 

I think most of us are mesmerized at least some of the time by “spin,” narcissism, fantasy, and exhibitionism among well-known people in entertainment, sports, politics, and even in religion and try to follow in their footsteps.

Another major challenge is that we often try to avoid silence. The reason for this is that when we are silent, we create a vacuum and, as we learned in science class, nature abhors vacuums.  And so, the preconscious, those thoughts and beliefs lying just below the surface rise into awareness.

We are able to see more clearly the fears, games, worries, anxieties, angers, lack of faith, and desires that are lying just beyond our normal thinking.  If we don’t run away from this experience, it is very helpful to see what is driving us that is just below the surface. Much of it is distorted thinking but has been around so long we think it is true.

Such cognitions (ways of thinking, understanding or perceiving) once surfaced can then be addressed rather than having them act as invisible puppeteers to prevent us from embracing our authentic selves and sharing our gifts freely with others.

You have numerous recommendations for meeting these challenges–all of which are very much worth engaging–but what would you say is the most important one?

A newfound respect for humility, which involves grasping both our gifts and “growing edges” (defenses, resistances, and lacks) simultaneously with a sense of equanimity is essential. The reason for this is when you take knowledge and you add humility, you get wisdom. And, when you take that very wisdom and add it to compassion, you get love.

In the end, love is at the heart of a meaningful life. Moreover, for those who are religious, God is love. And so, humility is a spiritual portal of the greatest magnitude.

You invoke the Catholic monk Thomas Merton several times in this book. What do you think he has to offer in support of your project here?

Merton’s final abbot, Dom Flavian Burns, was my mentor at an important point in my life.  We would frequently speak about Merton. I think the reason for this is that my work centers around the themes of self-care, maintaining a healthy perspective, resilience, and the integration of psychology and spirituality. Merton was interested in these areas as well.

In addition, he wanted to be self-aware without falling into being self-preoccupied which is a delicate balance at best. His sense of the “true self” versus the “false self” also is very much in line with my seeking to honor a sense of “ordinariness” which I refer to as an attitude or stance that allows us to explore and be intrigued by current realities and possibilities within ourselves.

When we are comfortable enough with ourselves we can also be appropriately transparent, which Merton sought to be. We also see in his diaries a desire to confront what he felt were unhelpful external influences—even when they were by an abbot who purported to have Merton’s best interests at heart.

I’m asking these questions for a magazine with a very significant online reach, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you this: what specific advice do you have for those of us who present our ideas publicly, especially online?

People are drawn in when we express ourselves in a way that is appropriately transparent, honest, and hopeful. After spiritual writer Henri Nouwen died, one of his closest friends told me that one of the wonderful gifts of Henri’s writings was his gift of discretion. When I asked her what she meant, she said that he shared enough about himself so we could identify with him but not so much that we got into him and avoided ourselves.

In The Tao of Ordinariness and my previous works, I try to emulate this. For instance, I share a story about my son-in-law speaking about the importance of humility to his two daughters when they were very young.  The youngest, who was about six at the time, asked him exactly what he meant by it.

After he read the definition of it, he asked them who they thought of when he read the description of humility and they, along with my daughter who was present, yelled out “Mom-Mom!” referring to my wife. When he then asked, “Well what about Pop-Pop?” the three of them shook their heads side to side and said, “No, not Pop-Pop!”

Offering an illustration like this shows we are all on the road to finding our way in life, in my terminology, our “ordinary selves”. Being appropriately transparent and honest about both our gifts and growing edges (humility) offers a wonderful invitation to those who read our blogs and posts.


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