The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Merger Self, the Seeker Self, and the Lifelong Challenge of Balancing Intimacy and Independence

The Merger Self, the Seeker Self, and the Lifelong Challenge of Balancing Intimacy and Independence

Each time I see a sparrow inside an airport, I am seized with tenderness for the bird, for living so acutely and concretely a paradox that haunts our human lives in myriad guises — the difficulty of discerning comfort from entrapment, freedom from peril. It is a paradox rooted in the early development of the psyche and most poignantly manifested in our intimate relationships as we confront over and over the boundary between where we end and the other begins, the challenge of balancing intimacy and independence.

Pulsating beneath the paradox are two opposing forces — one tugging us toward the comfort of the known, the safety of the terminal, the other beckoning us to fly into the open sky of the unknown, with all its sunlit freedoms and its storming dangers. In her 1976 book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (public library), Gail Sheehy (November 27, 1936–August 24, 2020) explores these “two sets of forces always at loggerheads inside us over the questions of how far and how fast we shall grow,” terming them the Merger Self and the Seeker Self.

Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy

She writes:

Our Merger Self… is the universal wish to be attached to another, to restore somehow the beatific closeness with mother, for in that fusion would lie perfect harmony, absolute safety, and endless time. The Merger Self is born of the frustration with our early discovery that we are indeed separate and distinct from our caregiver. It triggers a desire to totally incorporate the other, any “other” who becomes the source of love and pleasure… The Merger Self then, in its constant effort to restore closeness, desires always a safe, tight fit.

The Seeker Self is driven by the opposite wish: to be separate, independent, to explore our capacities and become master of our own destiny. This impulse is fueled in early childhood by our delight in awakening capabilities.

But for all its problematic clinginess, the Merger Self is also crucial for the “temporary fusions” upon which empathy is founded — the ability “to reach out and empathize with others, to feel as they might feel without letting our own reality intrude” — and upon which all love rests; for all its seeming strength and self-reliance, the Seeker Self can thrust us into selfishness and solipsism. Only by balancing the two can we achieve what Carl Jung called individuation, Abraham Maslow called self-actualization, and Sheehy calls simply authenticity — “the arrival at that felicitous state of inner expansion in which we know of all our potentialities and possess the ego strength to direct their full reach.” She considers the necessary calibration at the heart of the balance:

If the Merger Self is indulged too early, it can lead us into a no-risk, no-growth position. But once we are beyond the suspicion, or the fear, of letting our distinctiveness be lost in attachments to others, it is our merger side that enables us to love intimately, share unselfishly, express tenderness, and experience empathy.

If the Seeker Self is left unbridled, it will lead us to a self-centered existence in which genuine commitments can have no place, and in which efforts to achieve individual distinction are so strenuous that they leave us emotionally impoverished.

It is only by getting the two sides to work in concert that eventually one becomes capable of both individuality and mutuality.

Art from An ABZ of Love

In the remainder of Passages (which I discovered through a sidewise mention in The Middle Passage), Sheehy goes on to explore how the balance of these two aspects of the psyche affects everything from romantic relationships to professional actualization across the various stages of life as we dismantle our projections and complexes, relinquish our compulsions and conditioning, and recover our authenticity. Observing that “the major task of midlife is to give up all our imagined safety providers and stand naked in the world, as the rehearsal for assuming full authority over ourselves,” she considers the ultimate payoff of this painful, redemptive process:

One of the great rewards of moving through the disassembling period to renewal is coming to approve of oneself ethically and morally and quite independent of other people’s standards and agenda. By giving up the wish that one’s parents were different and by navigating through various lifestyles to that point of dignity worth defending, one can achieve… arrival at that final stage of adult development, in which one can give a blessing to one’s own life.

Complement with Kahlil Gibran on the challenge of balancing intimacy and independence, the key to which Schopenhauer so poignantly captured in his parable of the porcupine dilemma, then revisit Rilke on the difficult art of giving space in love.


Facts about the Moon: Dorianne Laux’s Stunning Poem about Bearing Our Human Losses When Even the Moon Is Leaving Us

Facts about the Moon: Dorianne Laux’s Stunning Poem about Bearing Our Human Losses When Even the Moon Is Leaving Us

“Hearing the rising tide,” Rachel Carson wrote in her poetic meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life, “there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before… of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future.” There is indeed in the physics of the tides — that gravitational dialogue between our planet and its only satellite — something of the existential, something reminding us how transient all things are, how fluid the future, how slippery our grasp of anything we hold on to, how relational every loss.

The tides bridge the earthly and the cosmic, science and symbol: They cause drag that slows down our planet’s spin rate; because gravity binds the two, as the Earth loses angular momentum, the Moon overcompensates in response; as it speeds up, it begins slipping out of our gravitational grip, slowly moving away from us. The prolific English astronomer Edmund Halley first began suspecting this haunting fact in the early 18th century after analyzing ancient eclipse records. It took another quarter millennium and a giant leap into the cosmos for his theory to be tested against reality in a living poem of geometry and light: When Apollo astronauts placed mirrors on the surface of the Moon and laser beams were aimed at them from Earth, it was revealed that the Moon is indeed drifting away from us, at the precise rate of 3.8 centimeters per year. The Moon, born of the body of the Earth billions of years ago, is drifting away at more than half the rate at which a child grows.

If even the Moon is leaving us — “that best fact, the Moon,” in Margaret Fuller’s exultant words — what is there to hold on to? How are we to bear our ordinary human losses, the worst facts of our lives?

Those questions, immense and intimate, come alive in the stunning title poem of Dorianne Laux’s’ collection Facts About the Moon (public library), stunningly performed by Debbie Millman at the seventh annual Universe in Verse on the eve of the 2024 total solar eclipse.

by Dorianne Laux

The moon is backing away from us
an inch and a half each year. That means
if you’re like me and were born
around fifty years ago the moon
was a full six feet closer to the earth.
What’s a person supposed to do?
I feel the gray cloud of consternation
travel across my face. I begin thinking
about the moon-lit past, how if you go back
far enough you can imagine the breathtaking
hugeness of the moon, prehistoric
solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun
so completely there was no corona, only
a darkness we had no word for.
And future eclipses will look like this: the moon
a small black pupil in the eye of the sun.
But these are bald facts.
What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
The moon keeps the oceans from swallowing
the shores, keeps the electromagnetic fields
in check at the polar ends of the earth.
And please don’t tell me
what I already know, that it won’t happen
for a long time. I don’t care. I’m afraid
of what will happen to the moon.
Forget us. We don’t deserve the moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we’ve done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon, rolling
around alone in space without
her milky planet, her only child, a mother
who’s lost a child, a bad child,
a greedy child or maybe a grown boy
who’s murdered and raped, a mother
can’t help it, she loves that boy
anyway, and in spite of herself
she misses him, and if you sit beside her
on the padded hospital bench
outside the door to his room you can’t not
take her hand, listen to her while she
weeps, telling you how sweet he was,
how blue his eyes, and you know she’s only
romanticizing, that she’s conveniently
forgotten the bruises and booze,
the stolen car, the day he ripped
the phones from the walls, and you want
to slap her back to sanity, remind her
of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,
a little shit, and you almost do
until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes
two craters and then you can’t help it
either, you know love when you see it,
you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.

Complement with a poetic meditation on moonlight and the magic of the unnecessary, Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s beguiling woodcut moonscapes, the story of the first surviving photograph of the Moon, and Patti Smith’s haunting reading of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” then revisit Dorianne Laux’s love letter to trees.


Shame and the Secret Chambers of the Self: Pioneering Sociologist and Philosopher Helen Merrell Lynd on the Uncomfortable Path to Wholeness

Shame and the Secret Chambers of the Self: Pioneering Sociologist and Philosopher Helen Merrell Lynd on the Uncomfortable Path to Wholeness

There are certain experiences that shatter the eggshell of the self and spill the yolk of the unconscious, slippery and fertile, aglow with potential for growth. Shame is one of them — an experience private and powerful, rife with the most elemental questions of who we are and where we belong. At its core is a peculiar form of inner conflict, in which one part of the self gasps with revulsion at the choices of another, exposing the fundamental incoherence of our inner lives and the longing for what D.H. Lawrence called “living unison,” exposing the unsteady foundations of reality itself.

The pioneering sociologist and philosopher Helen Merrell Lynd (March 17, 1896–January 30, 1982) examines shame as a singular lens on the self, and on the human potential for integration and transformation, in her revelatory 1958 book On Shame and the Search for Identity (public library) — an investigation of the disconnect between the people we think ourselves to be and the people we act ourselves into being, inviting a proper understanding of shame as a pathway toward a more conscious and coherent self.

Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

Lynd writes:

Shame is an experience that affects and is affected by the whole self. This whole-self involvement is one of its distinguishing characteristics and one that makes it a clue to identity… In this moment of self-consciousness, the self stands revealed. Coming suddenly upon us, experiences of shame throw a flooding light on what and who we are and what the world we live in is.

Those experiences that involve the whole self are particularly vulnerable to our compulsion for categories and labels, born of an anxiety to contain the in the finite the infinities of the mind, to wrest order from the chaos of the heart. With an eye to the challenge of comprehending and communicating such complex experiences — experiences like love, wonder, longing, self-respect, and shame — Lynd cautions against the limiting nature of labels:

Reliance on accepted categories and methods may mean that certain phenomena essential for understanding identity escape attention. In the present climate of psychological thought any observed human characteristic speedily acquires a label, which encases it within one of the experimentalists’ or the clinicians’ categories. Extensive as these categories are, applied to some life situations they may be more constricting than informing.

Certain pervasive experiences, not easily labeled, may slip through the categories altogether or, if given a location and a name, may be circumscribed in such a way that their essential character is lost. Habituation to such usage may blind us still further to the necessity of searching more deeply into the nature of these experiences.

To look more closely at experiences “hard to isolate and confine,” she argues, is to look into the very nature of the self, into what William James called the “blooming buzzing confusion” of consciousness. Lynd writes:

It is no accident that experiences of shame are called self-consciousness. Such experiences are characteristically painful. They are usually taken as something to be hidden, dodged, covered up — even, or especially, from oneself. Shame interrupts any unquestioning, unaware sense of oneself. But it is possible that experiences of shame if confronted full in the face may throw an unexpected light on who one is and point the way toward who one may become. Fully faced, shame may become not primarily something to be covered, but a positive experience of revelation.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Part of what makes shame so misunderstood and underinvestigated is that it is often conflated with guilt. Although the two may complement and reinforce one another, guilt tends to arise from the feeling of wrongdoing, of having transgressed a boundary, while shame stems from the feeling of falling short, of failing to reach a hope or meet an expectation, which anchors it in a deeper stratum of the personality — for rules and boundaries are externally constructed, while our hopes, expectations, and ideals are the most intimate building blocks of personhood. This is why an apology accepted and pardon granted can vanquish guilt, but they do little to allay shame. Lynd writes:

Guilt can be expiated. Shame, short of a transformation of the self, is retained. This transformation means, in Plato’s words, a turning of the whole soul toward the light.

Drawing on a kaleidoscope of examples from literature — Shakespeare and Sartre, The Bible and Anna Karenina, Virginia Woolf’s diaries and Huckleberry Finn — she observes that shame is most often contrasted not with extrinsic measures like righteousness and approval by others but with the elemental, intrinsic values of truth and honor. It is a mirror held up to the self, brutal and sobering — a revelation of a profound breach between the ideal self, in which our self-image is rooted, and the real self. She writes:

Experiences of shame appear to embody the root meaning of the word — to uncover, to expose, to wound. They are experiences of exposure, exposure of peculiarly sensitive, intimate, vulnerable aspects of the self. The exposure may be to others but, whether others are or are not involved, it is always… exposure to one’s own eyes… Shame is the outcome not only of exposing oneself to another person but of the exposure to oneself of parts of the self that one has not recognized and whose existence one is reluctant to admit.


The feeling of unexpectedness marks one of the central contrasts between shame and guilt. This unexpectedness is more than suddenness in time; it is also an astonishment at seeing different parts of ourselves, conscious and unconscious, acknowledged and unacknowledged, suddenly coming together, and coming together with aspects of the world we have not recognized. Patterns of events (inner and outer) of which we are not conscious come unexpectedly into relation with those of which we are aware.

This feeling of internal incongruence is the most painful aspect of shame — a vivid reminder that we know ourselves only incompletely and have but marginal control over which parts of us take the reins of personhood at any given moment. (And yet this aspect of self-surprise is something shame shares with some of the most beautiful capacities of consciousness — wonder and delight, also marked by the gasp at another dimension of reality revealed. Homer linked Aidos — the Greek goddess of shame — to awe.) Lynd writes:

Being taken unawares is shameful when what is suddenly exposed is incongruous with, or glaringly inappropriate to, the situation, or to our previous image of ourselves in it… We have acted on the assumption of being one kind of person living in one kind of surroundings, and unexpectedly, violently, we discover that these assumptions are false. We had thought that we were able to see around certain situations and, instead, discover in a moment that it is we who are exposed; alien people in an alien situation can see around us.

What makes shame most unbearable is this feeling of sudden expatriation from reality, which leaves trust — in oneself, in the world — dangerously jeopardized. Paradoxically, it is often not the darkest but the brightest in us that is most vulnerable to shame. Lynd writes:

Part of the difficulty in admitting shame to oneself arises from reluctance to recognize that one has built on false assumptions about what the world one lives in is and about the way others will respond to oneself… Shame over a sudden uncovering of incongruity mounts when what is exposed is inappropriate positive expectation, happy and confident commitment to a world that proves to be alien or nonexistent… Even more than the uncovering of weakness or ineptness, exposure of misplaced confidence can be shameful — happiness, love, anticipation of a response that is not there, something personally momentous received as inconsequential. The greater the expectation, the more acute the shame.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Shame is so difficult to bear because it takes us back to the core vulnerabilities of childhood, that tender need for congruence between the world of our imagination and the real world, the longing for a single world that coheres. Lynd writes:

Basic trust in the personal and in the physical world that surrounds him is the air that the child must breathe if he is to have roots for his own sense of identity and for the related sense of his place in the world. As he gradually differentiates the world of in here from the world of out there he is constantly testing the coherence, continuity, and dependability of both… Expectation and having expectation met are crucial in developing a sense of coherence in the world and in oneself.

Because it is so rooted in our grasp of reality, the shame of having misjudged a situation, misplaced an expectation, miscalculated one’s own merits, is a profound unmooring of the psyche:

What we have thought we could count on in ourselves, and what we have thought to be the boundaries and contours of the world, turn out suddenly not to be the “real” outlines of ourselves or of the world, or those that others accept. We have become strangers in a world where we thought we were at home. We experience anxiety in becoming aware that we cannot trust our answers to the questions Who am I? Where do I belong?


Because personality is rooted in unconscious and unquestioned trust in one’s immediate world, experiences that shake trusted anticipations and give rise to doubt may be of lasting importance… Shattering of trust in the dependability of one’s immediate world means loss of trust in other persons, who are the transmitters and interpreters of that world. We have relied on the picture of the world they have given us and it has proved mistaken; we have turned for response in what we thought was a relation of mutuality and have found our expectation misinterpreted or distorted; we have opened ourselves in anticipation of a response that was not forthcoming. With every recurrent violation of trust we become again children unsure of ourselves in an alien world.

In the remainder of On Shame and the Search for Identity, Lynd goes on to explore examples of shame and its conciliation across the canon of Western literature, then examines the two natures of shame, what it offers in confronting the tragedy of life, and how to think from parts to wholes. Couple it with Lynd’s contemporary Karen Horney on the conciliation of our inner conflicts, then revisit Ellen Bass’s magnificent poem “How to Apologize.”


The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Uncommonly Lovely Invented Words for What We Feel but Cannot Name

“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her exquisite manifesto for the magic of real human conversation. Each word is a portable cathedral in which we clarify and sanctify our experience, a reliquary and a laboratory, holding the history of our search for meaning and the pliancy of the possible future, of there being richer and deeper dimensions of experience than those we name in our surface impressions. In the roots of words we find a portal to the mycelial web of invisible connections undergirding our emotional lives — the way “sadness” shares a Latin root with “sated” and originally meant a fulness of experience, the way “holy” shares a Latin root with “whole” and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things.

Because we know their power, we ask of words to hold what we cannot hold — the complexity of experience, the polyphony of voices inside us narrating that experience, the longing for clarity amid the confusion. There is, therefore, singular disorientation to those moments when they fail us — when these prefabricated containers of language turn out too small to contain emotions at once overwhelmingly expansive and acutely specific.

Art by Marc Martin from We Are Starlings

John Koenig offers a remedy for this lack in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (public library) — a soulful invitation to “get to work redefining the world around us, until our language more closely matches the reality we experience.”

The title, though beautiful, is misleading — the emotional states Koenig defines are not obscure but, despite their specificity, profoundly relatable and universal; they are not sorrows but emissaries of the bittersweet, with all its capacity for affirming the joy of being alive: maru mori (“the heartbreaking simplicity of ordinary things”), apolytus (“the moment you realize you are changing as a person, finally outgrowing your old problems like a reptile shedding its skin”), the wends (“the frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should… as if your heart had been inadvertently demagnetized by a surge of expectations”), anoscetia (“the anxiety of not knowing ‘the real you'”), dès vu (“the awareness that this moment will become a memory”).

Koenig composites his imaginative etymologies from a multitude of sources: names and places from folklore and pop culture, terms from chemistry and astronomy, the existing lexicon of languages living and dead, from Latin and Ancient Greek to Japanese and Māori. He writes:

In language, all things are possible. Which means that no emotion is untranslatable. No sorrow is too obscure to define. We just have to do it.


Despite what dictionaries would have us believe, this world is still mostly undefined.

Art by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

There are various words addressing the maddening uncertainty of the two fundamental dimensions of human life: time and love.

n. the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, finally learning the answers to how things turned out but being unable to tell your past self.

French énouer, to pluck defective bits from a stretch of cloth + dénouement, the final part of a story, in which all the threads of the plot are drawn together and everything is explained. Pronounced “ey-noo-mahn.”

adj. longing for a sense of certainty in a relationship; wishing there were some way to know ahead of time whether this is the person you’re going to wake up next to for twenty thousand mornings in a row, instead of having to count them out one by one, quietly hoping your streak continues.

Mandarin 确认 (quèrèn), confirmation. Twenty thousand days is roughly fifty-five years. Pronounced “kweh-ruh-nuhs.”

There are words that reckon with the challenges of self-knowledge.

n. the state of not knowing how you really feel about something, which forces you to sift through clues hidden in your own behavior, as if you were some other person — noticing a twist of acid in your voice, an obscene amount of effort you put into something trifling, or an inexplicable weight on your shoulders that makes it difficult to get out of bed.

Ancient Greek ἄγνωστος (ágnōstos), not knowing + διάθεσις (diáthesis), condition, mood. Pronounced “ag-nos-thee-zhuh.”

n. the dread of finally pursuing a lifelong dream, which requires you to put your true abilities out there to be tested on the open savannah, no longer protected inside the terrarium of hopes and delusions that you started up in kindergarten and kept sealed as long as you could.

German Ziel, goal + Schmerz, pain. Pronounced “zeel-shmerts.”

Art by Paloma Valdivia for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

There are words that anchor us in both the smallness and the grandeur of existence, its fierce fragility, its devastating beauty; words tasked with holding the hardest truth — that we are children of chance, born of a billion bright improbabilities that prevailed over the infinitely greater odds of nonexistence, living with only marginal and mostly illusory control over the circumstances of our lives and other people’s choices, forever vulnerable to the accidents of a universe insentient to our hopes.

n. the state of being simultaneously entranced and unsettled by the vastness of the cosmos, which makes your deepest concerns feel laughably quaint, yet vanishingly rare.

From galaxy, a gravitationally bound system of millions of stars + agog, awestruck. Pronounced “gal-uh-gawg.”

n. the unease of knowing how quickly your circumstances could change on you—that no matter how carefully you shape your life into what you want it to be, the whole thing could be overturned in an instant, with little more than a single word, a single step, a phone call out of the blue, and by the end of next week you might already be looking back on this morning as if it were a million years ago, a poignant last hurrah of normal life.

Latin crāstinō diē, tomorrow + praxis, the process of turning theory into reality. Pronounced “krak-sis.”

n. a feeling of quiet amazement that you exist at all; a sense of gratitude that you were even born in the first place, that you somehow emerged alive and breathing despite all odds, having won an unbroken streak of reproductive lotteries that stretches all the way back to the beginning of life itself.

Spanish suerte, luck + fuerza, force. Pronounced “soo-wair-zuh.”

n. the frustration of being unable to fly, unable to stretch out your arms and vault into the air, having finally shrugged off the burden of your own weight, which you’ve been carrying your entire life without a second thought.

Lakota mahpiohanzi, “a shadow caused by a cloud.” Pronounced “mah-pee-oh-han-zee-uh.”

Art by Monika Vaicenavičienė from What Is a River?

Emerging from the various entries is a reminder, both haunting and comforting, that despite how singular our experience feels, we are all grappling with just about the same core concerns; that our time is short and precious; that all of our confusions are a single question, the best answer to which is love.

Couple The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows with Consolations — poet and philosopher David Whyte’s lovely meditations on the deeper meanings of everyday words — then revisit artist Ella Frances Sanders’s illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world and poet Mary Ruefle’s chromatic taxonomy of sadnesses.


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