On June 1st, while driving to meet family for brunch on a beautiful Sunday morning, tiredness overcame me. I told my husband I would drop him off, return home to take a little nap, and pick him up a couple of hours later. Once home, I made a beeline to the couch. I didn’t read myself to sleep; I didn’t wiggle around to find the most comfortable position. With throw pillows behind my head and crossing my arms across my chest, I was as still as the cartonnage mummy cases we had seen in Cairo two months earlier. Drifting into a deep sleep a little before noon, I thought to myself, “I have COVID.”
Three hours later, the two parallel lines of a home test confirmed my suspicions. But I was double vaccinated, boosted, healthy, and apart from being tired, there weren’t any other symptoms that first day. It seemed by then that I was the only one of my friends and family who hadn’t gotten it, and their symptoms had been mild or almost non-existent. I wasn’t worried that omicron would land me in the hospital. However, for the next three days, my throat felt coated with glass shards. Then Thursday morning, when my throat finally felt better, I was ready to get back to curating the fall issue of Christian Scholar’s Review. I sat down at my computer, logged on to the journal’s portal, and stared at the screen. I couldn’t make sense of what I was reading. A sore throat hadn’t been my only symptom.
Usually, with illnesses, we view the viruses, bacteria, and the mutated cells of cancer as outside of ourselves. Having been “invaded,” treatment is regularly referred to in terms of war. We battle disease, fight germs, and survive cancer with front-line therapies. Our sense of self is maintained while our immune system takes on the invading hordes. But this brain fog wasn’t about feeling ill or a weakened immune system. It had struck at the very center of how I understood myself. I feared Descartes might have been onto something. Truth be told, as I saw it, I couldn’t think; therefore, I was not me. In the span of four days, I had become a stranger to myself.
There was an irony here. I could clearly think about my inability to think. And I didn’t know how to make sense of it. Who was thinking about whom? How was it possible that I was overthinking about underthinking? Philosophers have grappled with this question for centuries, but I wanted to understand it from a cognitive perspective; why was my brain fog playing such mind games with how I perceived myself? Many psychologists start with the founder of American Psychology, William James, who wrote about this “consciousness of self” conundrum back in 1890.1 He saw the self as knower and known; the knower, who he also labeled as “I,” is the subject of experience, and the known, labeled as “me,” is the object of the experience. In other words, “I” is the thinker doing the thinking, while “me” reflects on the thinking “I.”
Psychologists also refer to thinking about thinking as metacognition. But this type of metacognition is a bit different as it focuses on thinking about the thinking self. According to Psychologist Albert Bandura, the fact that we can think about ourselves is a form of human agency, which has four attributes.2 If we can think about ourselves then we can intentionally shape our thoughts. Not only that but we can think about ourselves in the future. We also have the ability to self-regulate – constructing “appropriate courses of action and to motivate and regulate their execution.”3 Finally, agentic human beings are self-reflective, examining their own functioning. This functional self-awareness gives us the opportunity to reflect on our personal efficacy, “the soundness of our thoughts and actions, and the meaning of their pursuits.”4
So rather than some oddity or existential crisis, it made sense that while my thinking was not clear, my sense of being divided was simply a healthy case of personal agency. I still had the executive function to think about thinking; my thoughtful “me” was not functioning in a parallel manner to my foggy thinking “I.” But this is not some type of dualism. The “I” of the thinking and the “me” of the evaluating are one and the same. Bandura wrote about this succinctly, noting:
This seeming ontological separation involves shifting the perspective of the same agent rather than partitioning a self. The shift in perspective does not transform one from an agent to an object. One is just as much an agent reflecting on one’s self as acting on the environment. There is no reified self behind the reflecting.5
The gaps between my thoughts and thinking about them, in this case between “I” and “me,” was clearly a state of disequilibrium, but my motivation to close the gap between the two is also a form of self-regulation. In addition to directing attention to the disparity between the two, my functional self-reflectiveness did not leave me simply blowing in the wind but gave me the freedom to modify what I wanted to accomplish for the journal, putting off more complex tasks and assigning the trickle of summer articles to our very capable associate editors.
As I thought through the implications of self-reflection for spiritual formation, I turned to Paul, especially his own self-reflection of disequilibrium in Romans 7:19-20 “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” These verses, read on their own, suggests a lack of agency – Paul as a stranger to himself. But the following verses suggest something else. Paul too is motivated by his disequilibrium, if not to be able to solve it, then to understand it. He is practicing functional self-reflectiveness when he writes in verses 21-25, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
In multiple writings on agency, Bandura points out that being agentic does not mean living in isolation from others. On the contrary, he writes that human functioning is rooted in social systems that help to organize, guide, and regulate human affairs. In fact, he writes about the importance of collective agency exercised through the coordinated and interdependent efforts with others.6
But perhaps more importantly, as I read this passage in Romans, I am struck by the parallels to Bandura’s concept of agency through “proxy control,” working in coordination with others to secure what one cannot accomplish on his or her own.7 Paul recognizes that he cannot close this disequilibrium by his own power; his only hope is through the freedom found in Jesus Christ. The opening two verses in Romans chapter 8 pick up this theme as Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
I have learned to thank God that we are so wonderfully and fearfully made that we are not whipped around by the rawness of our thoughts but have the agency to reflect on ourselves. Rather than see my brain fog as an existential threat, I now see it as a gift of personhood that “I” could be contemplated by “me.” Even more, I am grateful for the deeper understanding that when any sort of cognitive, emotional, or spiritual disequilibrium strikes, I have a greater understanding of the freedom to turn it all over to Christ.
- William James. The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (1890, Henry Holt and Co), 291-401.
- Albert Bandura “Reconstrual of ‘free will’ from the agentic perspective of social cognitive theory.” In, Are we free? Psychology and Free Will (John Baer, James C. Kaufman, and Roy F. Baumeister eds.) (2008, Oxford University Press), 87-88.
- Bandura, 2008, 87
- Bandura, 2008, 88
- Bandura, 2008, 91.
- Albert Bandura, “Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective,” Annual Review of Psychology, 2001, 52:13
- Bandura, 2001:13