Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and bestselling author of 21 books, including What Makes Us Tick, The Good Life and Australia Reimagined. He has had a 60-year career in social research and was a weekly newspaper columnist for more than 25 years.
Today we speak with Hugh about his book, The Inner Self, which is about the ways we hide from the truth about ourselves and the psychological freedom we enjoy when we finally face that most searching question of all: ‘Who am I, really?’ We also talk to Hugh about his novel, The Question of Love.
This year has been like no other and we are all feeling a bit flat. To start, do you have any advice for us?
When things are very grim and when we are going through difficult patches, whether it’s something like this, a pandemic that has totally disrupted our lives, or a bereavement or a retrenchment, it is always the case that we are going to learn something valuable. We will learn about ourselves, about what it means to be human, about the way societies function and generally speaking, the outcome will be positive, as it was for the generation that lived through the Great Depression. A terrible time, mass unemployment, a lot of hardship and a lot of people doing it tougher than we are now. Most of the generation that were young adults at the time said it was absolutely awful, but it was the making of us. We will come out of this better citizens, better neighbours and better friends because we have missed this and have taken it for granted in the past.
The Inner Self is a big book and we don’t want to do an injustice by trying to handle it too quickly. The essential question is, do we know who we are or are we bumbling through life through life trying to figure this thing out?
It’s a lifetime’s project for most of us and I think there is typically a period where the process of getting to know ourselves changes quite radically. For most of us, the first half of our lives, adolescence, early adulthood, even through to our middle years, we’re quite preoccupied with establishing our place in the world. We are letting people know that we’re here, letting them know who we are. We do that by choice of job, choice of partner, the sort of house we live in, the sort of car we drive, the way we dress. It’s all to do with social identity.
At that identity-building stage of our life, we’re much more concerned about differences and of course identity is all about difference. And that could be on the basis of gender or ethnicity or anything. That’s what identity is about. But for most of us, there comes a time, and it’s often triggered by the so-called ‘midlife crisis’ which might be the 40th birthday or the 50th birthday or a pandemic. It might even be a retrenchment or relationship breakdown or some other thing; it’s often a feeling of frustration, disquiet or disruption that causes us to say, “There’s actually more to me than this social identity that I’ve constructed for myself” and we start to look inside.
An American psychiatrist I quoted in the book talks about ‘the authentic being’ finally asserting itself, when we begin to think perhaps there’s a more authentic version of me. And, when we look inside, we find something that seems paradoxical, the deeper we go into our inner life, to our inner self, the more we discover that it’s not about the differences between you and me, but it’s about our common humanity. That I think, is the moment of personal enlightenment for most of us, and from then on, the journey changes.
Once we get that insight, we realise that the essence of us is that we belong to a particular kind of species, human, a social species where we are hopeless in isolation with the differences between us much less significant than the fact that we need each other. We need families, colleagues, neighborhood, community groups of all kinds to nurture us and sustain us.
The crunch in order to do that, we going to have to treat each other decently. We’re going to have to treat each other kindly, and respectfully and compassionately. The heart of the inner self it (seems to me) is the discovery that we are born as members of the social species with the capacity for love and the capacity for compassion. This is a very demanding discovery, which is why many of us look for ways of hiding from those demands.
The key insights in your book are that there are 20 ways we continually hide from ourselves. Could you share just a couple that you think are the most dangerous or delusional?
There are two general points to be made about these ‘hiding places.’ One is almost always we are hiding from love. I mean we are hiding from the demands of love on us, and when I say love, I mean compassion. I’m not talking about emotion and I’m not talking about affection. I’m talking about our responsibility to treat each other kindly and respectfully.
The other general thing to be said about them is that not all of these hiding places are hiding places for everyone. For example, busyness, a lot of people hide in their busyness. If they keep running hard, they won’t have to question why they’re running, and busyness is a great way of postponing the encounter with the inner self. For some people they are just busy because life has dealt them with that hand and they’re going through a period of busyness.
There are three particular hiding places that I think are perhaps the most dangerous. One of the most common is projection and by projection, I mean looking at faults in other people and criticising them for the very faults and frailties that exist in us. It’s a very common psychological trick we play on ourselves. We know it’s something we should be addressing, some flaw or some shortcoming in us and instead of addressing it, we attack other people for the very same thing.
Another one at the moment, which is of course controversial because information technology has been the saving of us through the pandemic and many people have used Zoom and emails and text and Instagram and Facebook posts, to say nothing of the humble telephone as a means of keeping in touch while in lock down. But, more generally, information technology and our addiction, particularly to smart phones is a very, very, common hiding place. It’s a constant unstoppable torrent of data coming at us, and as long as we engage with that at every spare moment by scrolling through the thing, going to messages or checking on someone else’s Twitter feed, or whatever it might be, that of course is the ultimate distraction from our inner life. It’s keeping us preoccupied with data and relieving us really of the possibility of going inside.
The third I would like to identify out of the 20 that are particularly important and dangerous is what I call masks and labels. This is really where we settle for our social identity, the external shell. We settle for that as if that’s really us, and we can be very comfortable. We can wear a particular mask or a particular label (and by the way sometimes it’s a literal label like dressing in a particular designer label) and letting that kind of tell everyone else what kind of person we are. Which of course is nonsense, it’s a very superficial expression of who we are! But these masks and labels which have to do with our roles and responsibilities. It’s very easy to think, “Well, I am a son or a brother or husband or father or a neighbor or social researcher or an author, that’s all you need to know about me and maybe that’s all I need to know about myself.” But that’s a trap.
Another Pan MacMillan book of yours, The Question of Love, is a fiction?
Yes, The Question of Love is a novel that I first drafted about four years ago and it’s a very unusual structure. It’s a bit like jazz improvisation with a jazz musician establishing a theme and then goes off into all sorts of improvisation then comes back to the theme. For the first and last chapter of this book I have the statement and restatement of the theme and then there were lots of improvisation and variation as we go through and gradually peel away layers of this couple Richard, an architect, and Freya, his wife, a violinist. They have been married for 12 years. There are lots of difficulties between them to do with hiding from themselves and hiding from each other. As we move through the book there is a kind of forensic examination of their marriage as we gradually peel away the layers. I hope readers will see that because that was what I felt when I was writing it, that the more we get to know them, the better we understand some of the difficulties between them. There’s nothing quite like peeping into someone else’s relationship to clarify some things about your own.
Which should we be reading first?
I have several friends who told me they were reading them simultaneously, not literally simultaneously, but reading one and then reading a bit from the other and they felt that The Inner Self illuminated the question of love. But I think most people will probably read the novel, The Question of Love first because it’s more fun and its shorter and then go deeper into those questions by The Inner Self.
For more information visit www.hughmackay.com.au.