(Note: this is a continuation of the post “Who Am I” published on July 15)
If we can make the psychological break from the conventional wisdom of the modern mind to recognize that identity is not purely indiviual, or simply a product of social processes within which the self is completely constituted by cultural discourse, what is identity? Who am I?
The logical starting point to answer that would look back to the Greeks, particularly Aristotle’s support of the ‘golden mean,’ efforts to balance apparent dichotomies or dualism in thought. Dualisms are always represent only a glance or slice of a reality that is multi-dimensional anyway. So should we start with a balance — we are individuals within a social context? That context constitutes us in part (genetically, culturally, perhaps karmically) and within those circumstances we have the possibility to act, and to choose?
Yet that really doesn’t get us to identity. It maintains the separation of the social and the self; the social sets circumstances, the self navigates the realm of possibilities, constraints and opportunities the world presents. That maintains the Cartesian ego, mapping out the ‘rules of the road’ in how an individual constructs their life and life worlds. The self still is located in what begins as an alien land, a world that is strange and unknown, which one learns about as one experiences life.
It appears that the language of the enlightenment leaves us there. And, even that has no fundamental foundation. Post-modernists, the true masters of enlightenment thought and the use of reason, can use reason and logic to deconstruct any identity or any “road maps” we might create. We can debate and make strong arguments one way or the other, but ultimately it’s just perspective and persuasion. And while enlightenment thought sees persuasion as ideally based on logic and consideration of the evidence (e.g., you may not prove your position, but your argument and evidence is powerful so I’ll believe it), humans tend to go from emotion and use reason to rationalize what they want to believe.
So let’s approach this differently. What if we leave the limitations of enlightenment thought, and think about identity from a wholly different starting point. Identity is, fundamentally, about meaning. What does my life, my personality, my choices, my conditions, my very essence mean to me? “Who am I” can be restated as “What do I mean to myself?”
That’s a loaded question, and the way people answer it will say much about themselves. Are people hyper critical, do they feel unqualified to master life in the way they believe others around them do, do they feel love for the self, or do they deep down loathe the meaning their life holds for them? One answer that is unacceptable is to say there is no meaning. One might think life has no meaning, but there is always some kind of sense of what one’s own identity means to any person.
As one considers the answers — be they from confident optimists or repressed narcissists — I suspect one thing becomes clear: meaning is relational, involving either external world conditions, other people, or ones position within a culture. Even individual traits one ascribes to oneself are based on comparisons with others — I am lazy, happy, hard working, or depressed.
But here I’m only concerned with identity. Once one has a list or a set of ideas about what one’s very essence means to oneself, what next? Here the rationalist might look for a formula or set of rules to whittle this down into a clear identity — like a face book quiz, answer the questions and then somehow you’ll be given an answer: You are an adventurous free spirit!
No, the next step is imagination and self-reflection. This involves sentiment. How does the meaning you apply to your “self” — your essence, choices, and existence as a being in the world — make you feel? And then explore why you feel that way. If one’s identity is tied up in what one owns, does that bring feelings of satisfaction with what one’s life means? And further, is there a difference between those parts of your life you’ve actively sought to construct, and those parts where you passively followed desires that seemed to come from the outside? And if, as I suspect, nothing falls completely within each camp (there are no internal desires or identity construction without external connections), are there differences in the nature of the relationship between the internal and external variables of the self?
Imagination is the way to assess and give some kind of coherent narrative to what ones’ identity then is. For instance, ones’ introspection might yield a sense that who I am and what my life means as very much driven by trends and fads of the day, or manipulation from advertisers. One might find that identity connects to the use of a Mac over a PC, a type of jeans, perfume, beer, or car. Or it might be friends, religion, a sense of self-mastery, or joy at living each moment. What emotions does thinking about these connections arouse?
Then, with the imagination, one can explore the connections between the internal self and these external cultural aspects of the self. Feel the connection, don’t divide things into external and internal. In other words, wtih imagination we can let go of the enlightenment logic that inevitably brings us to a materialist ontology and a sense of meaning that becomes purely subjective and arbitrary. What do these connections mean? Are they spiritual? For religious folk, the spiritual might be very easy to connect with; for others it might seem like childish fantasy.
I’ve found that if I give up the fear that I may be engaged in childish fantasy, and instead have the confidence in myself to follow my imagination, meaning in life takes a new tone. Rather than it being attributal (I’m strong, weak, beautiful or handicapped), based on possession (poor, rich, a Mac user, a Nissan enthusiast, etc.), or even based on relationships/roles (mother, father, friend, environmentalist, crusader for human rights), something transcends all of that, and makes meaning and identity at least more clear to me. The connections themselves have a “feel” to them. If they are authentic, that feel is one of commonality, a kind of unity despite difference, a strong affinity. Other connections that may seem important end up evoking more indifference than expected, or perhaps even a kind of disgust or dismay.
With the imagination, perhaps augmented by literature, art, music and things which edify, we can get a clearer picture than pure rationalism will allow. Some call it spiritual, transcendent, sentimental, or religious. It is distrusted by our enlightenment modern minds because it seems frivolous fantasy. Yet the imagination is a powerful realm because it defies proof or disproof; we let it speak with the heart, hoping that the head will pay the heart respect. The strength, meaning and feel that those connections is what I would call love — love in a true, spiritual sense. It isn’t different from the love one senses in human relationships, but it is the source of our ability to love (both others and self). And if life lacks this sense of love, it will lack meaning. If our self-identity lacks meaningful connections (love) we will be more likely to flail around looking for some kind of sensation or cause to try to fill that gap.
Yet while process of identity construction may bring us closer, we still haven’t directly addressed the question of identity, and reconnected this whole issue to the topic of consumerism. I haven’t answered the question “Who am I?” Claiming identity will be part three of this series of posts.