Ann Hostetler (r) with Mennonite  author Elaine Sommers Rich (l) at Mennonite/s Writing conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

At the Mennonite/s Writing VI conference March 30-April 1, 2012, the theme of “the self” recurred often. Poet and scholar Ann Hostetler drew attention to this theme in her talk: “The Self in Mennonite Garb, or, Where Does the Writing Come From?”

Hostetler has been thinking about the lyric voice ever since she put together an anthology A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (U of Iowa 2003). She acknowledged the significance of the writing community in her tribute to Elaine Sommers Rich, whose autobiographical children’s novel, Hannah Elizabeth, was important to Hostetler as a child. Hostetler recognized Rich’s ability to enlarge the place for self inside community through the telling of a trickster-like story.

“Is having a self a good thing or a bad thing?” You may find this question ridiculous, but not if you are Mennonite who’s been well-instructed about the dangers of individualism and the benefits of counter-cultural community. Before writing a memoir one needs to have an answer to the vexing question of the self.

Maybe it’s because I am living here in Brooklyn where Whitman’s barbaric yawp still hovers. But my answer is “yes!” to the self. With some caveats.

The question took me to the famous dialogue poem by W. B. Yeats.

William Butler Yeats

A Dialogue Of Self and Soul

By William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;

Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,

Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,

Upon the breathless starlit air,

“Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;

Fix every wandering thought upon

That quarter where all thought is done:

Who can distinguish darkness from the soul

My Self.  The consecrated blade upon my knees
Is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,
Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass
Unspotted by the centuries;
That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn
From some court-lady’s dress and round
The wodden scabbard bound and wound
Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn

My Soul. Why should the imagination of a man
Long past his prime remember things that are
Emblematical of love and war?
Think of ancestral night that can,
If but imagination scorn the earth
And interllect is wandering
To this and that and t’other thing,
Deliver from the crime of death and birth.

My Self. Montashigi, third of his family, fashioned it
Five hundred years ago, about it lie
Flowers from I know not what embroidery –
Heart’s purple – and all these I set
For emblems of the day against the tower
Emblematical of the night,
And claim as by a soldier’s right
A charter to commit the crime once more.

My Soul. Such fullness in that quarter overflows
And falls into the basin of the mind
That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind,
For intellect no longer knows
Is from the Ought, or knower from the Known – 
That is to say, ascends to Heaven;
Only the dead can be forgiven;
But when I think of that my tongue’s a stone.


My Self. A living man is blind and drinks his drop.
What matter if the ditches are impure?
What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

The finished man among his enemies? –
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?
And what’s the good of an escape
If honour find him in the wintry blast?

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Written about 1929 and included in The Winding Stair (1933)

Critics have argued endlessly over the meaning of the symbolism of the soul in Part I, but most readers love this poem for Part II, where the language suddenly becomes concrete and joyous. The last stanza has stayed with me ever since I first read it as an undergraduate. I’ve come back to it often, finding encouragement there to embrace the largest possible self.

I knew there had to be a way in which the self was not the enemy of the soul and not the enemy of community. The fully acknowledged self is actually a gift to a larger whole. I’ve called this an ubuntu philosophy of memoir.

Today’s meditative reading from Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See offered me an insight I had not thought of before. Rohr draws a strong distinction between the ego and the genuine self: “Ego is just another word for blindness. The ego self is by my definition the unobserved self, because once you see it, the game is over” (90).

So, not only can memoir have a social function (thank you, Desmund Tutu, for sharing the ubuntu concept), but the process of writing a memoir can also open the eyes of the soul to truly see the ego, which makes it possible to forgive it and to celebrate the real self (Yeats). It can take us on a journey of conversion from blind slavery to the ego to transparent discovery of the self through the path of careful observation.

I return to the writing of Chapter Nine of my memoir. I’m standing in the wings watching a character I call Rosy Cheeks as she cheekily stands up to the bishop at age 17. She’s afraid, yet bold; she’s driven by forces she doesn’t completely understand. I see her at her grey Olympia typewriter, writing a letter that will result in a “pastoral” visit.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Yeats and Rohr both suggest that the perspective is key to embracing the self without embracing the blindness of the ego. Do you agree? If you do, how do you find that perspective?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Susan Allstetter Neufeldt on April 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I would argue that without a sense of self, you would never grow wise. If you proceed blindly through life without stepping back to think about why things go wrong or why they go right or how one made that mistake, you are doomed to repeat your mistakes rather than learn from them. Reflecting on them involves not only figuring out what one was looking for and why things happened, behavior of the observing ego. It also involves taking that discovery and figuring out how to do things differently, whether in avoiding future injury with an axe or harm to someone else. Learning from your mistakes–and times when you get things right–is the key to development as a person.

    • shirleyhs on April 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm

      Love this connection to wisdom, Susan, and to learning. You see through a wisdom lens as I see through a memoir lens these days. You also seem to be seconding Rohr’s idea that the ego recedes when observed. I found that very helpful. And, yes, the whole point of observing should be to gather experience into a wiser self.

  2. Tina Barbour on April 23, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    I think the ego keeps us from seeing ourselves as an individual connected to all others. Ego is all about who I am, what I need, what I want. The self, on the other hand, is our true essence, which is all about recognizing our connection to the divine and to the divine in all others.

    Sometimes that’s painful–to step away from the ego and dare to be the self. There’s such a pull towards going along with the ego, for doing what’s right for me right now. There’s freedom in finding the self, though, because it’s then that we realize, as Yeats said, “We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.”

    That said, I am not successful at always being aware of my self. My ego hangs around quite a bit, unfortunately.

    • shirleyhs on April 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      Welcome to the human race, Tina! We all have egos, and ego probably serves some good purposes, like survival. I struggled as I wrote this post to find language that differentiates self from ego without totally denigrating ego or trying to snuff it out. That’s why observation seems like such a nonviolent way to deal with ego: Here I am, doing this or that, thinking this or that.” Ah, that was fear masquerading as me. I can see that now.” We can observe patterns. The key is self-forgiveness and acceptance of our limits which paradoxically leads to our connection to the greater good.

    • Tina Barbour on April 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      You are so right, Shirley. I need to remember the importance of mindfulness when viewing the ego.

  3. shirleyhs on April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    I meant to give credit to this blog post on Yeats, which helped inspire my own thinking. Readers may enjoy this take, which gives a more detailed reading:

  4. Richard Gilbert on April 24, 2012 at 2:23 am

    Eckhart Tolle says the ego is that which “wants and fears.” How to name that part of us? But that about covers what it does, or at least its dark side. The older I get the more I think it’s hard to be human, and while we must struggle to express the best in us we might have to learn to accept ourselves a bit, too. Yeats believed in the conscious adoption of a mask as well, to help us, at least to help us create. For memoir, that mask—that persona—might be the best one of our selves now, looking back at that self then with a cool but not unkind eye.

  5. shirleyhs on April 24, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Yes, I tried to express both acceptance and growth/change/transformation possibilities. The idea of the persona does help bridge the self questions to the structure and layering of time issues. I love your last sentence: “that persona—might be the best one of our selves now, looking back at that self then with a cool but not unkind eye.”

  6. Eileen R. Kinch on April 24, 2012 at 10:16 am

    At the Mennonite/s Writing conference, Gregory Orr made the same distinction between Ego and Self–only I think he said it was the difference between the lyric “I” that was open and willing to see itself and others, and the “me,” that is grabbing, fearful, and selfish.

    Yet language around Ego and Self or the “I” and “me” can be so slippery. I was especially aware of this after I tried to explain the lyric “I” versus the “me” to the Conservative Friends (Quakers) I was staying with in Harrisonburg. Their foreheads wrinkled. Of course, it was late at night, and I’m sure I wasn’t articulating very well. But any “I,” now matter how lyrical, sounded a little suspicious to them.

    It’s true that perspective is important in embracing the true Self (I probably should have said “the image of God, in which we were created” to my Friends), but I find myself bumping up against a thought: Seeing ourselves as we truly are requires some Other. It’s not just about seeing ourselves; it’s also about being seen. We can never see ourselves in entirety (example: the surface of our own bodies); we always need someone/something else to see us in relation to our surroundings. We need the Other’s perspective to complete us.

    I believe I often wonder how to be open the Other–be it God, family, (religious) community–to allow mySelf to be changed or transformed, especially as I write. It’s a hard task, a calling.

  7. shirleyhs on April 24, 2012 at 10:35 am

    “Their foreheads wrinkled.” I love that. I can see my parents and grandparents with that same look on their faces. As you were writing these words, I was looking up the words to the famous revival hymn:

    Just as I Am, Without One Plea

    Text: Charlotte Elliott, 1789-1871
    Music: William B. Bradbury, 1816-1868
    Tune: WOODWORTH, Meter: LM
    1. Just as I am, without one plea,
    but that thy blood was shed for me,
    and that thou bidst me come to thee,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    2. Just as I am, and waiting not
    to rid my soul of one dark blot,
    to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    3. Just as I am, though tossed about
    with many a conflict, many a doubt,
    fightings and fears within, without,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    4. Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
    sight, riches, healing of the mind,
    yea, all I need in thee to find,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    5. Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
    wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
    because thy promise I believe,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    6. Just as I am, thy love unknown
    hath broken every barrier down;
    now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    You and the Other at my shoulder have helped me experience this hymn in a new way as I review events that happened to me nearly 50 years ago.

    Thank you, Eileen.

  8. Tina Barbour on April 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Shirley, I have nominated your wonderful blog for the Sunshine Award. Congratulations! Follow my link for details:

    • shirleyhs on April 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      You are so kind, Tina. I’m honored. Thank you.

  9. Jim Juhnke on April 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks, Shirley, for the introduction to Yeats’s dialogue between soul and self. The poem was new to me. I’m still puzzling over the polarity between these interlocutors. The Soul that accuses and the Self that forgives. Hmmmm.
    Ira Wagler’s memoir, Growing Up Amish, finds no forgiveness among his people. Among his sins was a broken engagement: “There is no human penance anywhere that can ever atone for the wrong I did to her that night.” (p. 201)
    What would Yeats tell Wagler? That the Self can forgive the Self and be healed?
    Wagler reports that he found forgiveness outside of himself and of his community. He discovered that Christ died for him. “Almost immediately a huge load of despair and anguish was lifted from me, replaced with a deep, quiet sense of joy and an internal peace beyond anything I had ever known.” (p. 258)
    I find Wagler’s conversion too simplistic. It too neatly finishes a troubled coming of age memoir. Now I’m trying to understand in what ways Yeats’s conversion is more profound. The Soul as accuser and the Self as redeemer. Really?

  10. shirleyhs on April 27, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks, Jim, for both inspiring this post in the first place and for offering your thoughts. I downloaded Ira Wagler’s book on my Kindle. Haven’t read it yet.

    It’s interesting that you draw a parallel between the poem and this memoir. The poem may fail to acknowledge the necessity of a transforming Other (other than self) but the master narrative of conversion (which Wagler evidently adopts) leaves out the self. These are the two poles I hope to avoid. Yeats comes close in the end of the poem to a sense of redemption that we know is possible, both because of our faith and because we have experienced this kind of new, transformed, forgiven, self. I think one can read the Other into the poem in the phrase “I am content to follow to its source.” I wonder what you and Eileen think of that idea?

  11. Saloma Furlong on April 28, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    This is a very interesting dialog, as usual, Shirley. I think in many intellectual circles, the ego gets a bad rap. I felt that way when I read Eckhart Tolle’s book. He uses the term “getting rid of the ego.” I think that is both impossible and detrimental. I’d rather strive towards a balanced ego. By that I mean, an ego that helps maintain confidence of the Self, to move toward my potential, or my purpose for walking this earth. I believe that is one of the things that Jesus taught us… He knew the reason He was born on this earth, and he moved toward that purpose, even though it meant suffering. An unbalanced ego might try to avoid the suffering, which would also avoid the joy that comes of overcoming the struggle.

    To me, one side of the unbalance in an ego is becoming self-centered — the world revolves around the “me” and therefore “I ” (as the Amish call it, “the big I”) can no longer feel empathy for anyone else, for no one else matters.

    The other side of the unbalance is having no “Self” confidence. If I don’t trust my “Self,” then I won’t take risks for fear of getting hurt, and so out of self-protection, I play it safe — that way I can avoid pain and suffering.

    I have had a long-standing difference of opinion with one of my sisters around what we believe is the basis for arrogance (displayed by a cocksure attitude). My sister believes someone with an abundance of self-confidence crosses a line into becoming arrogant. I believe all arrogance is actually a cover for a LACK of confidence. Either way, arrogance is another sign of an unbalanced ego.

    Susan, I love your idea of an “observing ego.” In this case, then, the ego becomes a helpmeet to the “Self” and helps in our journey to the Soul, or finding the purpose in our life. Self-reflection is key to living a balanced life.

    Thanks, Shirley, for this thought-provoking conversation.

    • shirleyhs on April 28, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      Saloma, you have given much thought to issues of soul, self, ego, and arrogance. This conversation is much like the one we have been having about pride and humility. What tricky subjects. sometimes I wonder if the distinctions we make are real or just semantic pairs with the same characteristics: Flesh, spirit; self, soul; ego, source: bad, good. Yeats is trying to get us past binary thinking, which is also Rohr’s quest. I don’t think extinction of the flesh, self, or ego is the answer either. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy that forgives our small selves and asks us to grow into God’s own largeness.

  12. Jim Juhnke on April 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    More on Yeats and Wagler: Yes, there is at least a hint of transcendence in Yeats’s “follow to its source” phrase. (Some of us would prefer an upper case “Source.”) I also appreciate Yeats’s shift from singular to plural in the final lines. “I” becomes “We.” There is no corresponding shift in the individualistic Jesus-and-me “Just as I Am” text. I used to sing that text as sheer personal yieldedness. Now, as I read the repeated “I am” and “I come” in each verse, I sense self-assertion not far below the surface. Where is the “we”?
    You are right, Shirley, that Ira Wagler’s conversion conforms to the evangelical master narrative. At the moment of transformation, the self is out of the picture. Paradoxically, however, that self-less conversion experience is what enables Wagler subsequently to assert himself and take the final step of leaving his Amish people.

  13. shirleyhs on April 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks for pointing out the change from “I” to “we” in Yeats, Jim. That’s an important part of the story and a sign that the self has expanded.

    As for the semantics of those two words, we often find writers differing on their meanings also. I remember reading an essay by one African-American writer (wish I could remember the title or name) who explained that the word “I” can represent the community. Whitman would say the same: “I sing the body electric.”

  14. Kathleen Friesen on April 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I am coming late to this conversation, but not for lack of thinking about the post and subsequent comments. My sense is that many have been using Freud’s concept of the ego in their comments. I hope to add to the conversation by suggesting a new lens: “What is the potential influence of Jung on Yeats?”

    Jung viewed the self as a center-point, a balance between conscious and unconscious where the ego is only one element. Jung wrote of the quest for wholeness, to find integration between light and shadow, to lay aside illusions and masks. Jung’s primary question was, “Are we related to something infinite or not?” Yeats picks up these ideas in this poem.

    Considering Jung and Yeats from the perspective of the memoirist, one Jung scholar, James Hollis, writes about tasks of life: The task of the first half of life involves building an identity in the world answering the question (paraphrasing Hollis), “What is the world asking of me? … what are the demands of school, work, and relationship?” The task of the second half of life asks us, “What is going on here, what causes this, from where in my history does my identity come?”

    Since Yeats, Freud, and Jung were all contemporaries, ideas of the modern era that informed their work. I experience Merton and Rohr as being influenced as Yeats and Jung were by the modern era philosophy and eastern philosophy. Hence Yeats’ closing, circular lines:

    We must laugh and we must sing,
    We are blest by everything,
    Everything we look upon is blest.

    Which bring to mind darker, closing, circular lines from Yeats:

    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
    (from “The Second Coming”)

    Finally a little Rilke:

    I live my life in growing orbits
    That move out over the things of this world
    Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
    But that will be my attempt.
    I am circling around God,
    Around the ancient tower,
    I have been circling for a thousand years
    And still I do not know
    If I am a falcon,
    Or a storm,
    Or a great song.
    (from “Selected Poems”)

    How do our memories fit into the circle of life? How does identify change over a lifetime? How do we travel consciously?


    • shirleyhs on April 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      The contemplation you did before you wrote this beautiful comment gave these thoughts depth and breadth beyond the frail limits of human minds and human language. Thanks for a touch of the sublime today.

      Yes, Jung lies behind many of the more mystical poets and philosophers. And behind him Meister Eckhart and the East. Some place Anabaptist Hans Denck there also.

    • Kathleen Friesen on April 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      I missed the Hollis reference:
      “On This Journey We Call Our Life: Living the Questions”

      Thank you for your kind response and pointing the way to Hans Denck.

  15. shirleyhs on May 2, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Lovely words from Thomas Merton’s journal point the way to a non-dual self: “If I can ignite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West, of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church, and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church. For if we want to bring together East and West, we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend both in Christ.” April 25 and 28, 1957.

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