Hugh Mackay AO has had a long and distinguished career in social psychology and research and has authored 21 books. His recent book, The Inner Self: The joy of discovering who we really are, published this year (2020) is timely. The COVID-19 pandemic, I think, has been a time of re-evaluation of relationships between nations, between people and with ourselves.
The book starts by examining, “what is the self?” not in a philosophical sense but rather what is the socially constructed identity we display to others and they project onto us. Mackay then discusses why we might hide from ourselves, or, resist knowing our inner selves. The reasons are many but one could be that we are scared of what we might find. He then goes through the top 20 hiding places (e.g. addiction, ambition, masks & labels). I recognised myself in some (e.g. busyness) but not all (e.g. victimhood). Finally, he ends with three soul searching questions and ties it all together in the final chapter called, “out of hiding”.
Why does it even matter whether we know our inner selves? Because the more we understand ourselves, the better equipped we are to live a meaningful, fulfilling life with a sense of purpose. Much of contemporary despair, argues Mackay, can be traced to self-absorbed individualism – excessive focus on our own happiness rather than contribution to the lives of others.
The ultimate message is that our capacity for love is the essence of what it means to be human. Our survival as a species requires us to co-operate and create a healthy well-functioning society. We need to realise the type of love (there are several types) known as compassion. This is more a discipline than an emotion (or affection). It is a commitment to kindness and tolerance towards everyone. This, says, Mackay, is a species thing, not a personal thing.
This is an insightful, analytical, and ultimately hopeful book that I thoroughly recommend.