Our secret selves

I have a grudging suspicion that Freud was onto something, with his talk about the id, the ego and the superego.

Do you or I present to the world that self as which we truly see ourselves, or a false self, as which we would like to be seen?

We all have secrets. We all feel guilty about certain things. We’ve all done, or at least thought, things of which we’re ashamed.

The language of religion lends itself to this discussion. To paraphrase the “seven deadly sins”, are we angry, avaricious, lazy, vain, lustful, jealous or gluttonous? A cynic might say that these seven adjectives pretty much sum up an average citizen of the consumer society. They are surely the basic human traits to which the advertising industry appeals.

Only those still troubled by a nagging belief in the judeo-Christian god need concern themselves with the first four of the ten commandments,  and most of us have not killed, nor will kill anyone. Many of us, however, may have a problem with “Honour thy father and thy mother”,  (respect for elders), adultery, (other unfaithfulness, lack of commitment), lying, stealing, and covetousness.

I have no experience of, and don’t feel fit to comment upon non-Christian religions.

In a secular, or heathen, or hedonistic society, of course, the notion of sin may be largely irrelevant, and so, too, any notion of religious prohibition or commandment. The Gordon Gekko credo, “greed is good” seems manifestly to be the mission statement of every banker, share trader, venture capitalist, or shall we just say, capitalist, in the world. Adultery, promiscuity, gluttony and covetousness are barely, if at all, concealed. Pornography used to be a shameful preoccupation; now it has become both art and industry.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone, male or female, with internet access, hasn’t looked at pornography. It has become light entertainment. There is, however, virtually no limit to what can be seen online. A great deal of pornography is degrading and exploitative. Many of the acts depicted are criminal. Would the average consumer of pornography be happy for their partner, parent, employer or child to see what they were looking at?

Do our partners know all about our past sexual liaisons? Would we be embarrassed or ashamed to speak about them? Statistics suggest that about half of married people, men and women, are unfaithful to their spouses, so if we haven’t yet cheated on our wives or husbands, it’s a pretty good bet that we will! It follows, too, that people in “stable” relationships spend a lot of time, still, sizing up other potential sexual partners. Consider masturbation; (another guilty secret?) About whom do we fantasise when we thus indulge ourselves? Our spouses? Ex-partners? Complete strangers? Most often the latter, I suspect.

Are we all scrupulously honest in our daily work? Or do we succumb, one and all, to the temptation to lie, cheat and steal, to defraud the taxation office or our employer. Some small indiscretion perhaps. Everyone does it. But would you tell anyone that you had?

One’s secret self may closely approximate one’s public self, and probably most often does. People are generally very capable of deceiving themselves, their families, friends, lovers, bosses and the public at large, about small misdeeds or smutty thoughts. Others are spectacularly unconcerned about public opinion, social mores, love, trust, respect, commitment, morals or the law, and behave accordingly, their secret selves seemingly less secret.

Many of us, though, I believe, have very well developed alter-egos, complex personae wherein dwell spectacular or bizarre sexual fantasies, thoughts of murder, violence, revenge, whole lifetimes of secret thoughts, ulterior motivations, imaginary triumphs, dark and bitter satisfactions. We are all, to some extent, Dr Jekylls and Mr Hydes.

It’s necessary, perhaps, to have a secret self, into which we can retreat, for refuge from the constant struggle for conformity and respectability, a means whereby we are able to preserve a happy marriage, to prosper in the marketplace, to get on with our neighbours. In our minds, in fantasies, in dreams, disappointments are overcome, injustices revenged, unlikely victories accomplished. Outwardly, meanwhile, life goes on, in its sedate and orderly way.

Generally speaking, only in times of social chaos, in war, riots, economic catastrophes, or when an individual, for whatever reasons, is brought to extremis, does the secret self predominate, does the beast within emerge.

Mankind has evolved codes of behaviour, morals, ethics, laws and taboos as constraints to enable us to live together. Peace and happiness rely upon the conscience of the individual. Most people’s consciences, though, are not unduly troubled by thoughts unspoken, outrages not perpetrated, or fantasies not brought to fruition.

We are, at best, very imperfect creations. We should not, perhaps, cease to be mystified or appalled by acts of inhumanity, but we should, at least, be aware that such deeds are not carried out by monsters, but by creatures such as ourselves, all too much like ourselves.


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