Certain thoughts pertaining to identity formation, to consciousness, superfluity, life-purpose, follow from the perambulations on which my reading programme has taken me.
It is important to me to try to summarise the hypothesis I am now about to entertain.
Something happened to me, going on thirty-four. Something happens to a lot of people. During my year at theological college, many of those called to be vicars were in their thirties. It was expected. My father, too, in his mid-thirties, chose a career change. If the gospel stories are just stories, that Jesus was in his mid-thirties when he died seems an apposite choice for the storytellers. If they contain accurate biographical material concerning the days leading up to his crucifixion, it would seem that his mission, a revelation of his identity, achieved its completion when he reached a similar age. At my theological college none of this went unnoticed.
At thirty four, in certain cultures, this is the age that boys finally become men, or having become young men, warriors, in their teens, now become elders. And I've noted that at twice seventeen, or thereabouts, this is also the age, biologically, that parents see their children grown to the age where they can bear children, where the focus on nurture switches from eldest child to potential grandchild. It seems natural to me that such a switch would be accompanied by a widening of perspective, a concern growing for one's community as a whole, rather than one's immediate family.
So what happened to me then? I experienced what psychologists call a moment of Absolute Unitary Being - AUB. At this point I re-engaged with the vocation to vicarhood from which I had in my twenties walked away; though not in a desperate sense, more in the sense that any choice I might make would be good - or perhaps honest, okay, are better words. In a nutshell, my perspective widened. I sensed a one-ness with everything, including my understanding of God. Indeed, my understanding of God widened to include everything I didn't know, as well as those things I did.
How to make sense of such an event? One way might be to describe it in terms of identity. This was the moment I knew myself as an individual. Jung calls it individuation. It's quite easy to see such a moment as the apotheosis of one's life. Nothing will ever feel as good. Enlightenment is pursued through one's novitiate: afterwards, the Buddhist saying goes, one returns to chopping wood and lugging water around. Recently I've found it next to impossible to shake the idea that having experienced the AUB, yet again I've returned to a sinful state. I've been given a free pass to Heaven, and even turned my back on that.
I think - and this is the hypothesis - that a more helpful conception of what is happening would be the following. The AUB was about individuation: since then, however, I've not been regressing, I've been developing. Every faculty by which I achieved my identity the first time has not been switched off: instead it is going about its business building secondary, perhaps even tertiary or further identities. Identities that finesse the one I already feel good about, extending my range, building my empathy, giving me alternatives, allowing me to venture beyond myself at just the point in time when the first intimations of mortality start whispering about my joints (think evolutionarily, rather than idealistically, pre-cod liver oil and U3A).
The difference this time round is that I already know I'm okay, and everyone else, and everyone else I could be. All I need to do, when spectres of guilt haunt me, is remind the new identity I am constructing around me, that I inhabit, that, for the duration I am, that it is every bit as okay as the AUB proved my first full identity to be.
Multiplicities; stories with new characters I have created myself to be - these take shape as I pursue the relevant and new-minted art of storying, an art which may, actually, be what evolution has hardwired us all to experience.