A Comparison of Self-Acceptance in Beloved, Secrets and Lies, and Cuckoo's Nest

A Comparison of Self-Acceptance in Beloved, Secrets and Lies, and Cuckoo's Nest

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Self-Acceptance in Beloved, Secrets and Lies, and the Cuckoo's Nest  

“Self”-one of the words most commonly used, yet hardly ever defined. According to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, the term self refers to a) a person’s nature, character, etc. in the sense of “his/her better self”, or b) a person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality, e.g. one’s own self. To clarify the term self in regard to how an individual perceives himself/herself, I would like to make a distinction between the term “ego” and self.

    Generally, ego is defined as “the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment” (1). I believe that the term ego has been slightly modified throughout the past few decades and now also functions as a synonym for self-importance. The ego is reflected within the capital spelling of the word I, referring to myself, as a separation from aspects of the human psyche that we do not include into our identification of ourselves. It is the ego that makes us feel connected to our name, to our families, and to our accomplishments in life, especially if they have provided us with social respect (and even disrespect, as I will explain later throughout my essay). In pressurizing situations, it is the ego that makes sure that we have the self-esteem to continue, confirming us that we are different from anybody else and that we have the individual qualities and abilities to do anything we choose.

    The self, on the other hand, is in my opinion what we really are, our nature/ character, not necessarily who we perceive ourselves to be. The self is based on a sense of understanding that every individual is on a journey; a lifelong experience. I believe that the self allows ourselves to feel compassion with ourselves no matter what we are going through in life, because we do not need to prove or accomplish something to be entitled to live. Connecting this with the definition given in the Random House Dictionary, stating that self describes a person’s nature, I believe that a strong sense of self is based on acceptance. This implies acceptance of ourselves at any given moment, and acceptance of the fact that all of our past experiences were necessary to bring us where we are right now.

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There is no sense in looking back and wishing things could have been different, because in reality, they could not have. Therefore, I would like to conclude that a strong sense of self enables an individual to accept given circumstances and move on within the present moment, regardless of their past experiences. A person who realizes this, is in my opinion truly free, because he/she has the possibility to adapt to changing circumstances by modifying the way he/she perceives himself/herself in the present moment. This leads to the realization that old wounds from the past can be healed, and that only we ourselves are responsible for our well-being.

    I would like to illustrate this using different characters from three sources: 1. The novel “Beloved” written by Toni Morrison, 2. The movie “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” directed by Milos Forman, and 3. The British movie “Secrets and Lies”.
Sixo, a character from the novel “Beloved”, has a very strong sense of self, because he has learnt to accept the confinements of slavery, and is able to maintain his “mental” freedom. This becomes obvious through the fact that he takes risks, e.g. having the relationship with the thirty-mile woman, going into the forest at night to enjoy the nightsky, and eventually planning his escape from Sweethome. When Sixo steals a piece of meat from schoolteacher and is caught, his strong center is reflected. When asked if he has stolen the piece, he denies, but when asked if he has killed, butchered, cooked, and eaten it, Sixo admits he had. His reasoning is very logical, especially from a naturalistic standpoint, yet it is completely inappropriate for a slave to challenge his master. By giving schoolteacher a justification that is logical and  natural, Sixo proves his integrity, even if he is beaten as a result of that. Although Sixo’s strong self can not prevent his death, he dies a free man, because he is truthful to himself at all times. Even when his feet are smoking, while he is tied above the hominy fire, he yells “Seven-O, Seven-O” (p.226) proudly, to let the other slaves know that a part of him is going to live on: his unborn child. The internal strength of such a person can be very intimidating for people, who do not feel the same strength within. This is the justification for schoolteacher to beat Sixo after stealing the piece of meat. He does this to show him “that definitions belonged to the definers-not the defined” (p.190). This is the reason why schoolteachers’ boys finally have to shoot Sixo in order to “shut him up”(p.226).

     In this respect, Sixo and Randall McMurphy, the protagonist in “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” share many similar character traits. Both men have a very strong sense of self, and therefore have to die. They are killed through the lack of control others can execute on them, but they die as free-spririted men. McMurphy is presented at first as a coarse, rebellious troublemaker. The reason he is in the mental institution is based on his intent of  fooling the legal authorities into believing he is insane. He does this to prevent having to go to jail, for raping a fifteen year-old girl. Although the crime he has committed may not be morally excusable, McMurphy has integrity in everything he does. From the very first moment he is brought to the insane asylum, he remains truthful to his nature, and does not once look back to question why he is in this place. During his conversation with the director of the insane asylum it becomes obvious that he did not rape the girl, because of being malicious or evil, but because he simply did not realize what effect this act of violation could have on the girl. In his opinion she was “a fifteen year-old, going on thirty-five, who seemed to be very willing”.

    Throughout the course of the movie, Murphy’s strong sense of self reveals itself through the compassion he has for his other inmates. Although he is not the kind of man, to act modestly, quiet and humble, he shows the strength of his heart by showing “his boys” how to stand up for themselves. He enables them to free themselves of the restrictions and expectations of the oppressing authorities. The means he uses are strongly connected to his character, and therefore his actions are truthful. McMurphy, e.g. steals a bus to take all of his inmates on a fishing trip. This is a incredibly freeing experience for them.

On another occasion, he refuses to take his medication and dares to question nurse Ratchet why it is necessary. During the discussion sessions, he shows his inmates how to speak up to Nurse Ratchet. Furthermore he teaches them to value their possessions when they are “gambling”, and how to enjoy themselves, without having received permission. In this way he functions as a healer, because due to his strength many of these men discover ways in which they can let go of things in the past and become stronger within themselves. McMurphy does not look back. This does not mean that he passively accepts the situation he is in, because he continuously seeks is hecking out plans to escape the asylum, but he seems to know that there is no sense in clinging to the past, and contemplating what he could have done differently.

     In the larger picture, I believe that the connection McMurphy and “Chief” have is representative of the mechanisms people use to protect their true selves from the restrictive control of authority figures, in this case nurse Ratchet. As mentioned earlier when discussing Sixo’s character, it can be a very dangerous strategy for a person with a strong sense of self to “show all of their cards” at once and let other people know who they really are. This is based on the fact that many people feel overpowered by somebody that has a strong self, because these are the people that have the potential to create change, even revolutions. The fact that “Chief” makes everybody believe that he is deaf and dumb can be compared to the fact that, in my opinion, McMurphy seems to not reveal his softer sides. The compassion he has and the warmth that he gives others is reflected within his actions.

     The antagonist of this movie is represented by the authorities of the mental institution, primarily by nurse Ratchet. Analyzing the scenes in which she leads discussion sessions, especially concerning her intentions, it seems that Ratchet purposely bring up the past of the mental patients to keep them locked in insecure frames of mind. She hereby creates a vicious cycle, because she does not allow the mental patients to let go of their dysfunctional behavior patterns and keeps reminds them of the neurosis’ they have. In this respect, she fulfills a similar role to schoolteacher in “Beloved”, because she does not allow them have a strong sense of self in order to control them better. McMurphy realizes this, and because he sees how helpless his inmates are, attacks her.The scene in which nurse Ratchet discovers Billy in the private nursing-room with female company and threatens to tell his mother reveal the tactics she uses to control the patients. Billy seems to have gained a stronger self-image after this experience, which makes him stop stuttering, but when nurse Ratchet brings up the topic of his mother, he feels such desperation that he commits suicide.The disturbing message of this movie is based on the fact that nurse Ratchet and the other authorities of the mental institution cannot control McMurphy and therefore he is lobotomized. “They shoot him to shut up. Have to.” (“Beloved”, p.226).

     It is obvious that characters like Sethe or Billy, cannot function adequately within the parameters of society, because they are haunted by the past. Both characters cannot accept the given circumstances they are in, and move on in life. Sethe is willing to kill her own children to prevent them experiencing the horror she has encountered in the past;  Billy, on the other hand, is so terrified by his mother’s reaction that he kills himself by slashing his throat. Although McMurphy tried to show Billy how to let go of identifications with the past and the images that mentally suppressed him, Billy is controlled by his mother to the extent, of having lost his sense of self. This makes him  give up the responsibility for his own life.Similarly Sethe has been effected by her past in ways that she cannot comprehend. Her ego tells her that she has a strong self and that she does not need the help of others. But the memories of the past dominate her perception and haunt her to the point of complete insanity. This can be seen in her desperate need to grasp onto both of her daughters.

     I can draw many parallels between the movie Beloved and the English movie “Secrets and Lies”, especially in the character choices for both Sethe and Cynthia. Cynthia, is a woman, who has lived her entire life belonging to the lower working-class, and cannot cope with her reality or function as a normal member of society. She lives with her daughter in a small house in the “ghettos” of Liverpool. She has become a very nervous woman throughout the years, and is scared to reach out to the outside world or ask anybody for help. She seems to be very destitute and lonely in her solitude. This is the reason she is so protective of Roxanne and why she pleads with her brother to stay with her, even if this means humiliating herself.

     Comparing Billy from “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”, with Sethe from “Beloved”, and Cynthia from “Secrets and Lies” it becomes apparent that a person, who has a weak sense of self cannot accept the given circumstances and move on, without suffering from past experiences. This holds these characters captive and eventually leads to their downfall. They cannot adapt to change and do not know how to view reality.

     I think these characters are very successful depictions of human conditions and behavioral patterns. For myself, I have come to realize that only I am responsible for my perception of reality. As a child and adolescent, I suffered for many from severe Dermatitis. During this time my sense of self was fairly weak and I oftentimes felt inferior to others because of the appearance of my skin.Consequently I found myself becoming more and more introverted and did not enjoy being socially active. I believe that once I ceased using my skin as an excuse mechanism for not being strong, the healing process began. It became necessary for me to change the way in which I perceived myself and how I let the illness affect me. This realization changed my life. Instead of being the Dermatitis-girl, who supposedly did not want, and yet really needed every one to feel sorry for her, I have become a strong, confident, healthy, young woman, who has sensitive skin. As a result, I have not had any symptoms of dermatitis for the past three years, and my skin has healed completely.

    This has lead me to the conclusion that a strong sense of self enables an individual to accept the given circumstances they are in and to move on, regardless of their past experiences. As illustrated by McMurphy and Sixo, a strong sense of self is oftentimes regarded as something that is potentially dangerous. These figures can stand up for themselves and are truthful to their nature. Although both characters have to die because of this, they die as men who have maintained their mental freedom. Billy and Sethe on the other hand have such a weak self-image, and are affected so strongly by their past experiences that they are able to kill. As the word self-destruction implies, a weak sense of self can lead to person into complete desperation. Only then do we give up responsibility for our own well-being, and create situations, in which we allow others to take advantage of us or become receptive to manipulation.

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