This coming Sunday I will be speaking about “The Wider Self.” What I have come to believe is that we are so much more complicated than any one theory about human nature. We “contain multitudes” as Walt Whitman observed, and within those multitudes is the very essence of what makes any of us a person. While we know our history is not our destiny, we do know our history, our context if you will, plays a large part in how we see the world. I agree with Anaïs Nin that “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.”
But who are we? We are our history, our family (or decidedly not our family as the case may be), our genes, and perhaps, our souls. What I do believe is that we are also the networks we keep. So much of the acrimony in American public life can be attributed to the networks we restrict our world to. This is why social media can be so insidious: if we only spend time with those who think like us, the algorithms of digital platforms will feed us only more of the same.
The social scientist Kathleen Wallace makes a compelling case that who we are as a person is actually the accumulation of the networks we keep. In her book The Network Self: Relation, Process and Personal Identity, she challenges the belief that we are separate from the world we are engaged in. In her words, “Rather than an underlying, unchanging substance that acquires and loses properties, we’re making a paradigm shift to seeing the self as a process, as a cumulative network with a changeable integrity.”
The most important realization I see with this way of looking at ourselves is that we can transform our identity through the networks we keep and the networks we seek to better our lives. While we are all flawed and broken people in one sense, we can be better people in another by surrounding ourselves with people who are also seeking transformation. That transformation can take the place of something as baseline as our sanity or as far-reaching as lasting social change.
The point is that we do have a choice to be around those who can make us better people. That includes this congregation. I have seen amazing transformations happen right before my eyes among those who find their way to us. Such networks can lead to a better future beyond whatever past we have suffered from. In Dr. Wallace’s words:
“Some responsibilities might be inherited, though many are chosen. That’s part of the fabric of living with others. Selves are not only ‘networked,’ that is, in social networks, but are themselves networks. By embracing the complexity and fluidity of selves, we come to a better understanding of who we are and how to live well with ourselves and with one another.”