You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know.
Psalms (139:13-14)The Ancient Songbook of the Hebrews
The Hebrew Book of Psalms is an ancient songbook — but its music has been lost. No one quite knows how the psalms were set to music. All we have today are the words. Perhaps the words were sung a capella, or they were meant to be recited in a rhythmic pattern. There is a general suggestion that a lyre harp was the main instrument of choice. Attributed to the ancient King David, the psalms of the Bible number one-hundred-fifty. Each Psalm is a plaintiff voice to God, a prayer, but when read, the Psalms closely spell out a philosophy of the self.
The "I" in Psalm 139 is an "I" closely tied to the experience of an Other. The first words of the Psalm are "Lord, you have probed me, you know me" (139:1). The Psalm sets the experience of the self in relationship to all-knowing God, a being who "knit me in my mother's womb" (139:1b). The experience of the self is one of relationship to a being greater than the self, a series of steps that brought the self from nothingness to being. Read in this way, the self is not an isolated molecule, a desiccated thing, a piece of something. The self is intricately bound up with the Other in such a way that the self is the other.
The Point-of-View of a Self Looking Backward
I have seen Psalm 139 used as an argument against abortion. The reasoning goes that since God has formed us in our "mother's womb" — the act of terminating a pregnancy is the annihilation of a future self. I imagine that suits pro-lifers well; and, I do begrudge them for their argument. But I see the verse of Psalm 139 tells a different story. The language of the Psalm is from the perspective of looking at oneself in awe. It is an epiphany that comes with awareness, with a self-consciousness that only comes from a sense of becoming. "I am a self!" — is a type of understanding a developed being has — that type of awareness that "I am a self — and this 'knowledge is too wonderful for me'" (139:6).
The self of Psalm 139 is the self that has achieved the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I come into this world kicking and screaming. No one asked my permission to exist. But here I am. I eat. I feed off my mother's milk. I kick. I squirm. I am dependent, and I barely recognize my own image; the world is me, and I am the world. But I break into self as a kind of divided self. I acknowledge that I am a "me," and it is traumatic for I feel at once the break from the other. It is a seismic break (but one that I do not remember distinctly). But I came out of it and entered childhood, with its ravages and glories, into adolescence and then into adulthood — where I now stand. I imagine David, the eternal lyricist, wrote this Psalm in middle-age — not as a mewling boy, not as the teenager who slew Goliath, but as the King who one day woke up to an understanding of his own being.
Positive and Negative Aspects of the Self in Relationship to the Other
I do think there are positive and negative aspects of a self in relationship to the other. In Psalm 139, this relationship is seen as positive, as one that pervades one's being with an empowering message — that you are wonderfully made. It is the voice of a parent, for example, that has buttressed you with confidence, and you have internalized this encouragement. An inner voice that carries you through the toughest of times. But there is also a negative aspect of a self in relationship to the other — it is the demanding other. I see this demanding other when I cede over my power to another that seeks to punish. When I am not right in the world. When my being feels as if "foes ... conspire a plot" against me those "enemies I count as my own" (Psalm 139:20; 22b).
I call the positive self concerning the other the creator. It is the feeling of being right with the world — perhaps that feeling one gets as a child when your teacher places a gold-bright sticker on your classwork, and you carry it home beaming. I call the negative self for the other the destroyer. It is the feeling of not being right with the world. Crushed by the other, we succumb to self-loathing and self-sabotage. The other of Psalm 139 saw us unformed — "my days were shaped before one came to be" (Psalm 139:16). The self stands between this tension of positive and negative forces. The "I" of the self entangled with an other.
What is a Self Free of this Entanglement?
Zeus conspired to chain the old gods in a locked chamber in the underworld. Sons grow up to overthrow their parents. A self "knit together" in the womb grows up to be independent — at least, isn't that the purpose of adulthood? Freedom for the self is real. But true freedom is terrifying. I think of the choices I make in my life — most of them are habitual. Born out of necessity. Out of duty, even. But in that space of habitual service, can there be something like freedom? It is not every day one makes life-changing decisions — but I feel like there are axial moments in the life of a person that has set the pathway. Maybe there is more than one path. I do not know.
An axial moment in dance is when the dancer fixes their body in one place, using the spine as a focal point, so as to find optimal movement for all the joints. It requires determination, strength, and a nimble body — one that I do not have! — but I like the metaphor. I was knit together in my mother's womb but now I find myself standing on two feet. What is next? What step do I take? That choice is what defines me. And do I make it my own? Yes. That is what I hope.
What was your axial moment? Let me know in the comments.
NABRE: New American Bible Revised Edition. United States, Saint Benedict Press, LLC, 2011.