Rembrandt produced nearly 100 self-portraits — paintings, etchings and drawings — over his lifetime. It would be easy to dismiss Rembrandt’s fascination with his own image as the morbid preoccupation of a narcissistic artist. In Rembrandt’s case, that would be a mistake.
Obviously, Rembrandt’s self-depictions change as he ages but most critics see more. With the rise of Western individualism, they also see Rembrandt’s evolving sense of himself as an individual – from defiant young man to successful artist to introspective elder. Rembrandt’s self-portraits evoke both his uniqueness and universality.
Others see deeper dimensions of the self in this body of work. Artist Vincent Van Gogh said: “In Rembrandt’s portraits, it is more than nature, it is a kind of revelation . . . . [He] penetrates so deeply into the mysteries that he says things for which there are no words in any language.” In “How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful Imperfect Self,” author Roger Housden writes about how the artist’s paintings speak to our perceptions of self, vision, and meaning.
However you interpret Rembrandt’s focus on his self-image, one thing is clear. Something about his self-portraits caused generations of critics to perceive an evolving self in his works. Writing for The Daily Telegraph (July 15, 2013), Mark Hudson explains “Looking at his self-portraits we are looking not just at endless images of a jowly old Dutchman, but understanding what it feels like to be inside the human skin, connected to all others, yet inalienably separate from them.”
What is Self?
The notion of an ever-changing self excites and frightens me. Reducing the self to labels and boxes limits who we can become. Defining the self as ever-evolving gives freedom to simply be who we are, complex, multi-dimensional beings born again from moment to moment. The only thing that keeps us from reveling in that freedom is our fears — of the future, of not being in control and of change.
As clients start to heal in therapy, it is common for them to say at some point “I don’t know who I am if I’m not a depressed person. I’m not OK with not knowing who I am.” Seeing myself as a “depressed person” is both a label and a box. For those who have been depressed as long as they can remember, it is familiar. While depression (or any mental illness) is painful, having a label that describes who I am gives a small degree of comfort that is hard to give up. It’s not surprising really. As humans, we crave security, predictability and control.
Neuro-linguistic programming says the words we use shape how we think. If true, it matters how we describe ourselves. Think about it: “I am a lawyer or doctor” versus “I practice law or medicine.” “I teach” versus “I am a teacher.” One limits who we are and the other opens possibilities. One creates the illusion of certainty and permanence while the other accepts that things change over a lifetime.
Like Rembrandt, we are not one self over a lifetime; rather, we are many selves. We are each both unique and universal. I see the self as analogous to water in a river. Like water in a river, our self is constantly in motion, ineffably changing, always moving forward — sometimes calm and meandering, other times plunging downward in a rage, more often somewhere in between depending on the environment.
Everything I experience, every action I take, every thought that crosses my mind, every emotion I have — changes who I am, emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually. Thankfully so, from my perspective. If my self was fixed, then healing and growth would be impossible. It’s the difference between saying “I am an angry person” versus “I feel anger.” I am not my anger. My anger doesn’t define my self.
What’s the Point?
So you may be asking — what’s the point? Here’s the point. I am who I am in this moment. Five minutes from now I will also be who I am but different. The thing is, I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you how I will be different. I have only limited control and there is no guarantee everything won’t change in the blink of an eye (e.g., I step off a curb and get hit by a drunk driver). Besides, defining “who am I?” stunts my healing and growth. The relevant question is what can I learn in this moment?