Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sosein – being thus and no other

No, I did not make up that word. Sosein was a term created by Karl Jaspers that basically refers to the core of a person that resists any attempt to change. Who is Karl Jaspers? Born in 1883, he was a German psychiatrist and professor at the University of Heidelberg. His wife was Jewish and during the Nazi regime, he was stripped of his professorship for defending his Jewish colleagues. A man who was supposed to die young due to chronic illness, he lived quite a long and interesting life.
So now you know a little bit about a rather obscure professor from the early 20th century. I ran into this gentleman's philosophical studies in an article published by another obscure psychologist named Carlo Strenger entitled "Active Self Acceptance in Midlife." This notion of Sosein basically refers to what Jaspers and Strenger both believe is our intrinsic, fundamental and individual nature – and that we cannot change it.
Follow me here for a moment –
So if we accept the fact that there are things about ourselves that we simply cannot change – is this really a cause for distress? We can suffer from those immutable qualities and we can also find joy in them as well. Not all that is unchangeable is bad, right?
Midlife is "when we have enough of a biography to allow us to know who we are." Strenger goes on to say, "Our potential has had enough time to express itself and is now embodied in our biography. Misconceptions and illusions we have had about ourselves give way to the accumulated evidence of who we are and how we have lived. The freedom of midlife is to fully realize the potential visible in our biography and to focus our energy on making the most of it."

The crux of the above statement is the actual ability to 'fully realize the potential' – that's where this whole notion of active self-acceptance comes in. We could also call it active self-awareness or mindfulness. Either way, 'active' implies a continual process of assessment and exploration. There is nothing static about this – no single epiphany that creates a new you. This is work that "requires us to be fearless in our questions and to face the answers that we find inside ourselves."
Jaspers and Strenger are on to something with this notion of actively practicing self-acceptance. I also believe that change is possible as I get better in touch with what truly makes me happy and energized. Acceptance of all that I have been, done and carry as baggage allows me to feel a lightness in my heart – relief and yes, grace – for who I am right now. I am making the best out of my life and want to continually challenge myself to do so for the next 45 years.
Jaspers knew that life is painful and sweet all in the same moment. We need to 'make the most' of our lives without trying to throw all of what we have been out the window. Talk about draining and really impossible. I think it was Salvador Minuchin who said that people get stuck in the narrow definitions of themselves. Through acceptance we open up space for new knowledge. Like halftime in a football game, perhaps midlife is simply the chance to step off the field a bit, assess the damage, take a look around and figure out what will work on the next play.
In you are interested: Strenger, Carlo; Sosein: Active Self-Acceptance in Midlife, Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2009 49:46.

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