In the summer of 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan became the face of the Iranian Green Revolution after her tragic death by gunshot was caught on cell phone camera and uploaded onto YouTube for the whole world to see. The international media rushed to put a face to the victim–but the picture they mistakenly used (from Facebook) was that of another Iranian woman by the name of Neda Soltani, who was still very much alive.
Neda Soltani and her family and friends frantically tried to clear her name (and her face) with the international media, YouTube, and Iranian officials She became the target of the Iranian intelligence and eventually had to leave her life as an a 33-year-old English-literature teacher at a campus of Islamic Azad University who had not been active in politics.
In an interview on NPR’s On the Media which was re-broadcast on June 13, 2013 , Ms Soltani, who now lives in the United States, was asked how she feels about the confusion of her identity with a dead activist. She said sadly, “I live with her.” As caught up as I was with Neda Soltani’s story of mistaken identity, this phrase still jolted me. Neda Soltani has to live with two people, herself and a woman with whom she will forever be connected, and the two never met.
That phrase, “I live with her” got me thinking about a common theme in spiritual forma- tion: our false self or our shadow self. At the risk of oversimplification, these are a few ways that the “false self” has been described. Thomas Keating speaks about the false self as a “self-image that impedes one’s relationship with God.” Carl Jung notes that the Shadow Self is made up of repressed sensations, feelings, thoughts or intuitions which do not conform with our ego’s consciously decided identity.
Christian mystic Thomas Merton says, “My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love.” The false self feeds the ego’s need for survival, adapting to whatever it needs to be in the moment.
However we define the false self, I’m sure that in our most honest moments we know that we don’t always present who we really are or even who we want to be to the outside world. Perhaps that’s why, when we try to become more like Jesus, it feels as if we are battling with another, lesser version of ourselves. It seems to me that the role of spiritual formation is bringing our false selves in line with the G0d-ordained, Spirit-infused self that comes alive when we are “born again.” Here is how The Message describes that process in John 3:
“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
Richard Foster once said to me (along with other members of a class he was teaching), “What you need to do is become more of the Karen that God created you to be.” I see now that part of the process of becoming more of me is saying good-bye to the false self that is a product of the experiences and thoughts I have repressed, the attempts to be what others expect of me, and the emotions that I used as shields to keep me safe. The only thing my carefully constructed other self ultimately does is hinder me from the relationship with God that I long for.
Neda Soltani feels that she will be carrying a dead girl around with her for the rest of her life. Apprentices of Jesus know that the resurrected Jesus made it possible for us to be free of the dead weight of our false selves. We can choose to never again be mistaken for our false selves. Our chains are gone; we just have to step out of them and move into the Truth.