… when we take up occupation of the site of our bodies in stillness before God. We are granted a place to be, simply in virtue of being there as material beings made by God: the physical act of drawing breath becomes an affirmation of my receiving of the gift of my place, an acknowledgement that I am ‘wanted’ by God in my fragility, my time-bound being which depends for its continuance on the physical environment.Rowan Williams: Lear & Eurydice
I have often heard it said that is it not good to be self-absorbed, that this is a sign of desolation, linked to selfishness and self-pity. These are states of the human soul that attract criticism.
It may well be annoying when others can only think about themselves and have no time for little old me, but maybe those who are self-absorbed need our compassion. There are probably good reasons – hurt, fear, anxiety, harm, injustice, illness – a discomfort that makes them (us) preoccupied, turning in on themselves (ourselves) in ways that compound hurt and isolation.
I have been confused because it is also said that it is good to be recollected, reflective, to know oneself, to be self-possessed, centred, and so on. It is good to come home to oneself and to “take up occupation of the site of” this body. But isn’t this also to be ‘self-absorbed’?
There is all the difference in the world, and in how we see the world, between being preoccupied, and being occupied. Here’s how I see it.
There is discomfort. Although the hurt is within, you look outside, obsessed with circumstance, looking for a resolution that can never come because it is past or in the future or not within your power.
- You are hurt and angry, and your thoughts circle around and around the person who hurt you, what they did, how you wish you had defended yourself better, how it will be when you next see them.
- You are ill, and all you can think about what will make you better, when the doctor is coming, what the treatment will be like.
- You are anxious about a speech you are giving, a meeting, an exam, the dentist… You constantly play and replay a mixture of scenarios and outcomes in your head.
- You are bored and cast about aimlessly for distraction.
Self-preoccupation is a form of self-forgetting. From the outside, it looks like you are self-absorbed. You cannot think of anyone else but only your own pain. But really, you think about the situation but forget the hurting you.
I’ll say it again: something is wrong; you are hurting; what you and I need in this state are compassion and understanding.
“Occupation of the site of our bodies” involves withdrawing all the feelers you send out, into the past or the future, into memory and fantasy, and from thinking about what other people are up to. There is a sinking down from the head to somewhere lower in this body. You take up your place in and as this body. You become centred and self-possessed. Home.
The discomfort, the hurt, the anxiety does not stop, but it now becomes an object to which you can give kindly attention.
Being at home in myself in this way does not mean that everything is better. All my hurts and failings remain. But there is an acceptance. This is me. As they say, “I’m not ok, and that’s ok.”
Occupying this body – a self, centred, “in stillness before God” – I move naturally towards thou – thou as self, other and God.
Now you can extend the tender hand of compassion to yourself.