When I’m scared or down or even humiliated by something in my life, there’s a defiant voice in me that says out loud — in a tone that sounds more like desperation — “I love you!”
I actually always include her name, but that’s not the point here. It’s not a conscious thing. It’s an unconscious pleading of some sort that I can’t explain. Some inner part of me that I don’t control turns to someone’s spirit or image in a child-like way, as though asking for shelter or love or understanding.
I don‘t know exactly when this started, but I asked a psychologist about it and she said she had never heard of anyone doing such a thing. We talked about it quite a bit over a period of weeks. She eventually had an opinion.
“You should listen to this voice,” she said in words that I’m obviously paraphrasing by now. “It seems to me that this is a primal or deep part of you that’s underneath the surface. Just like all of us, you have a lot of competing interests and voices inside — and this is the powerful, authentic voice that needs to be heard when you’re in need. You might not trust her, but you love her and you need her.”
And that was the beginning of my slow education about the competing voices inside me — and that you have inside yourself — which don’t necessarily want the same things.
Am I the one unified whole that I assume I am when I say “I”? Or am I a collection of different parts, each with its own priorities and needs, some of which don’t even communicate with one another?
For most of my life, I assumed the same thing you probably assume. There’s only one “me.” When there were contradictory thoughts, I found ways to explain them away or to dismiss them. But my conversations with the psychologist started me down the road toward realizing that there are different voices inside our heads.
I’m not talking about the dysfunction of something such as multiple personality disorder. I’m talking about different parts of our brains and hearts that have different interests and desires. About seven or eight years ago, I read a science book that helped make it far more clear. It’s called “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.” It forced me to rethink a lot of what I believed.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the science, but I strongly recommend you read the book. The first half was compelling to me, the second part not as much so.
The book makes the case that as our brains evolved over thousands of years, we have added layers of complexity and function — which isn’t a new idea — but it says that those parts of our brain are like modules that carry out specific functions. The newer parts of the brain carry out more functions related to higher-level thought. The older parts are the ones that connect us with gut-level fears. That’s the part that urges us to be cautious, because that is how we’ve survived long enough to reproduce for this many generations.
But here’s the interesting part. Scientists have proven that some of those parts of the brain are incapable of directly communicating with each other. You know the way you can have contradictory thoughts about something — how something can seem to make sense, but how there’s a nagging (almost unconscious) voice in the background warning you? That’s a simple example of two parts of your brain having different conclusions about something — based on the functions for which they evolved.
(Just as a side note, I see no reason to get into the issue of how humans evolved. Some people don’t like the term, but the evidence clearly says that human beings have physically evolved in the many generations we’ve been here. I believe God made us in some form and we have naturally evolved into what we are today. I see no contradiction between science and faith.)
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a couple of novels I’ve read recently by early 20th century German novelist Hermann Hesse. I have a lot I’d like to say that was stirred up by those books, but this is a bit of a preliminary. This is the easy part.
When I talk to myself, I use the word “we” as self-reference on the inside. It’s not that I’m crazy or that I’m trying to emulate royalty. (I might be crazy, but that’s a side point.) It’s simply that I see myself as a warring collection of internal parts that all have different desires and fears and needs.
The fiction that there’s one unified “me” in each of us is just a persistent illusion. Different parts of us have different (and competing) interests. When we say, “I want…,” we’re simply expressing the desire of the part of us we’re listening to at the moment, whether it’s part of the brain or the heart. My view is that if we refuse to listen to the heart — and pursue what some part of the brain wants instead — we can do that, but it requires deadening the heart to a degree that we feel dead and can’t feel much of anything eventually.
That’s a lousy way to live.
For me, a life spent pursuing what the brain wants instead of what the heart wants isn’t worth living, even if it appears right and successful to all those people who don’t understand what this particular heart needed. And please understand that I’m grossly oversimplifying to refer to a split between the head and the heart. There might be half a dozen different competing desires in us. Maybe more. I’m just simplifying it so we can talk about it without trying to be technical. It’s just a simple model.
Finding a healthy way to deal with our internal conflicts starts with recognizing that the conflicts are there. Most people whitewash their internal struggles or else they’re unaware that those competing internal parts are even there.
The various parts of my brain and heart sometimes strongly disagree about what to do in any given moment, so there are often internal wars over my differing desires. Sometimes I don’t even know what I want. Other times — such as right now — I know exactly what I want in the moment, but parts of me struggle to convince the heart not to follow what it wants, at least not in this moment.
So it’s a battle of conflicting programming, of short term vs. long term, and of being smart vs. following my heart. Or some other internal conflict. With all these conflicting and warring desires, I’m not sure that there’s really a unified “me” anywhere.
Will paying attention to the internal competition drive a person crazy? Or is it a good thing to understand our mixed motivations? I’m not sure. The only thing I’m ever sure about is when I feel love. Despite all the battles over what’s right and what’s smart, all of the warring “factions” agree about who and what I love. Somehow, that seems to unify everything enough to keep me sane.
And that brings me back to what the psychologist told me. Different parts of me can have different thoughts or feelings about the same person. I can be angry at someone. I can be afraid of a person’s ability to hurt me. I can believe a person could be psychologically poisonous or dangerous. And I can deeply love the person anyway.
I can want to forget about a person. I can wish I had never fallen in love with her. I can rationally think all sorts of things. But there will be times when some core part of me expresses itself — whether my rational and fearful parts like it or not — and I’m forced to say, “I love you.”
And whether the different parts of me like it or not — or whether different parts of me want to love her — the truth is that the love is still there and it’s still genuine and stubborn.
But here’s the part that’s hard for most of us to really accept. The inner battles which are so hotly contested inside of our minds and hearts are basically invisible to other people. Those around me have no idea this conflict is there. I don’t talk about it. They can’t read my mind. At least a couple of women from my past might each assume it’s referring to her if she happened to read this, but the odds of that happening are tiny. Even they wouldn’t know anymore, one way or the other. Or care, most likely.
And that’s the point.
This is a painful struggle for me — feeling like life or death at times — but nobody else cares. The things which seem most important to us — our deepest loves and sorrows and longings — are basically invisible to everyone else.
We fight these battles alone. We hurt alone.
And that makes it more miserable and it makes each of the warring internal voices angrier and more eager to prove it’s right.
For me, no internal voice is as independent and rebellious as my heart. It loves who and what it wants, regardless of the things the rational parts of my brain decide are best for “us” as a whole. My heart is stubborn and it stands alone against reason and history and good sense. Ironically, my heart has a history of being right even when all the other voices inside are allied against it, but it still feels risky to trust my heart when every bit of evidence says it’s wrong.
The confusing thing about this world is that it’s so contradictory.
It’s wonderful and it’s monstrous. It’s black and it’s white. It’s day and it’s night. It’s hope and it’s misery. It’s yin and it’s yang. It’s beautiful and it’s depressing.
I’m happier and more hopeful when I look at the beautiful and ignore the depressing, but I can’t seem to shut my eyes to any of it. I sometimes want to see the world (and reality) as one fixed thing, either good or bad. But I can’t.
The world and all of reality are all of this. They’re good and bad and everything in between. And when I love someone, she is also good and bad and wonderful and scary and even evil. To expect someone I love to be different from the rest of this created world — or different from me — is madness.
I just hope that experiencing and acknowledging the hateful parts of other people and of the world can allow me to experience the loving parts more intensely and authentically. I can’t be certain, but that’s what it feels like.
We are all full of contradictions. That used to worry me about myself. I have worked really hard to resolve my contradictions at times, but I worry less about that now that I understand this science. It also helps me to understand something which Walt Whitman wrote. He was never a poet that I really enjoyed, but I found myself especially confused by something he wrote in section 51 of “Song of Myself.”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
And now I understand that. I have multitudes of voices — competing interests of my head and heart — inside me. They sometimes contradict each other. I’ll be honest about that and try to reconcile them.
But I also understand that one voice speaks with more truth. More authenticity. It seems to be what I consider to be “the real me.” Maybe that’s just another fiction, but that’s what it feels like.
So when that voice says, “I love you,” I know to listen to it. I know to believe it. I know there’s truth in that, even if I fear it leads me to a life of loneliness and regret.
Note: I plan to extend this discussion to some wider ideas that were sparked by the two Hesse novels soon.