“there is an altar to a different god,” wrote the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Perhaps that’s some explanation for the often mercurial quality of being this strange thing we call the self, ourselves. We can’t easily know who we are for the simple reason that (often, at least) we aren’t just one thing — we consist of multiple selves. We’re not individuals so much as hives of all our pasts buzzing around together. Whether you subscribe to the reality of past lives or see it as a possibly useful metaphor, we’re the sum of all we’ve ever been, and that’s a lot of being. And with past lives (or the often active impulses to make alternate lives for ourselves within this one through the dangerous but tempting choices we face) we’ve known ourselves as thieves and priests, saints and villains, women and men, victims and aggressors, ordinary and extraordinary. When we’ve finally done it all, we’re ready to graduate, as a fully-experienced self, a composite unified after much struggle and suffering and delight. All of us, then, are still in school, the school of self-making.
Doesn’t it just feel like that, some days at least?! Even only as a metaphor, it can offer potent insight. The Great Work or magnum opus of magic, seen from such a perspective, is nothing more or less than to integrate this cluster of selves, bang and drag and cajole all the fragments into some kind of coherence, and make of the whole a new thing fit for service, because that’s what we’re best at, once we’ve assembled ourselves into a truly workable self: to give back to life, to serve an ideal larger than our own momentary whims and wishes, and in the giving, to find — paradoxically — our best and deepest fulfillment. “He who loses himself will find it gain,” said a Wise One with a recent birthday we may have noticed. We all learn the hard way, for the most part, because it’s the most profound learning. Certainly it sticks in a way that most book learning alone does not.
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