The Failure of the Mind

I am a creative person and have often defined myself by my creativity. But sometimes I experience what I might call creative erasure. My mind, formerly filled with ideas and dreams, words and stories, becomes a blank slate. The prior rush of passion and ambition slows almost to a still.

I think that self-definition based on the mind is a habit into which we often fall. We speak of the body, of the heart and soul, but when we attempt to isolate the most fundamental aspect of self, we tend to focus on the mind. We ask, “what is it that makes me me?” and thus confront the question of personal identity. What makes identity secure? What allows it to endure over time so that we can say we are the same person now as we were a year, a month, a week before? Perhaps we have the same body, or possess a soul that is pure spirit and so superior to matter, or perhaps our psychological experiences are the key to self-discovery.

I want to think for a moment about what this last point (the “mind view”) would mean if it were true. If our identity resides in our mental capacity, then it encompasses thoughts, memories, past psychological experiences, and the ability to reason. The next step that follows from this is a denial or dismissal of the body, for it can’t really be that important if all the seeds of identity are planted in the human mind. We are led from there to a dualism between the mind and the body, meaning that we separate the two as though they are at enmity with one another, rather than able to integrate or interweave.

Then there is the problem of failure. The very word seems to carry with it a measure of fear. But failure is inevitable; one might even say it is natural, ingrained into the human condition. If the mind is what defines us, then what happens to our identity when the mind fails? What should we think of ourselves when we cannot think the way we want to?

There are many major problems with this mind view that I will not be discussing in this post, such as memory loss (diseases like dementia) or intellectual disabilities. If we give value to a human being based on mental capacity or ability to reason then we neglect to notice so much of the beauty and goodness in life that surround us, merely because they cannot be judged on the same sort of scale. However, right now I want to talk a little more about a temporary loss or weakening of our usual mental capacities, and how this affects our self-concept if we hold to the “mind view.”

I began this post by saying that I often define myself by my creativity. When I create, I feel peace and joy, confidence and passion; I feel really and truly alive, and really and truly myself. These are all wonderful things and fruits of my writing for which I am thankful. But it does not follow that because writing makes me feel like myself that writing is what makes me myself. Despite this, I frequently become trapped by such an illusion. The consequence is that there are times when my creativity ebbs low, times when I feel weak and lacking in confidence, times when I do not have the energy to write or to think, times when the ideas do not flow and my imagination feels barren.

If being creative and being able to think at the height of my mental potential are what make me me, then I will be buffeted about by the changing tides of circumstances, constantly losing a firm grip on my identity, losing belief in myself. If, on the other hand, mind is only a part of who I am, then it no longer has the power to determine my selfhood. If I accept that I am weak and I am flawed, then I can still accept myself in those moments when I do not feel strong; I can love myself as myself in and for my weakness.

For to say that we are only a mind is reductionism, a rejection of so much that is good and true and beautiful in our experiences of personhood. To be a person is not to be one part of a person but to be a whole person: mind, body and soul. None of these aspects of self are sufficient on their own to make a complete person. You have a mind and this is a good, but you are not simply your mind. You have a body that places you in communication with the physical word and this is a good, but you are not simply your body. You have a soul that allows you transcend the material and reach towards God and this is most certainly a good, but you are not simply your soul. We are each a unique fusion of mind, body and soul, and one aspect of self does not need to be diminished in order to elevate another.

So what should we think of ourselves when we cannot think the way we want to? Perhaps it is time we allowed ourselves rest, and ceased the over-thinking and frenzied attempts to make ourselves into what we think we should be, merely through our own mental volition. When our lofty ambitions become heavy burdens instead of what they were intended to be- gifts, then perhaps we must pry our eyes away from those ambitions for a time, accepting that we are not less of ourselves because of some weakness, or because we need to take a breath from doing or thinking to be.