Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

Source

This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

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An Exploration of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”

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Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” is an inquiry into how our relationships with others shape our reality. His main thesis, which runs throughout the course of the book, is that there are two different modes in which we encounter the world, namely through ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ relationships.

Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in more detail.

I-IT

I-It relationships are entered into to achieve some sort of external goal or purpose. Through these type of encounters we engage others with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. For those familiar with the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people are treated as means to achieve an end.

With the rise of political and economic bureaucracies, shift towards urbanization and the proliferation of global corporations of the modern era, I-IT relationships have become the predominant mode of interaction in our day to day lives.

They arise when mass institutions transform individuals into mere objects. Consequently, we become subsumed by our particular roles that we play within society.

Think of how politicians look at individuals as voters or companies view the general public as consumers. Moreover, the complexity and uniqueness of each human is stripped away when we see the statistics of those who have passed away from the ongoing pandemic.

As Buber writes,

Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life. That institutions yield no public life is felt by more and more human beings, to their sorrow: this is the source of the distress and search of our age.

Of note, Buber recognizes that at some level I-It relationships are needed for modern society to function. Increased efficiency brought about by socioeconomic institutions have resulted in great material improvement and increased quality of life. However, he warns that living life and existing exclusively in the I-It mode ultimately leads to alienation. Our longing for genuine relationships goes unmet and we consequently feel disconnected and separated from others and the world around us.   

I-THOU

On the contrary, the I-Thou relationship is based on mutuality, empathy and being together with someone or something in the present moment. These encounters transcend analytic thought and the categories or roles we assign to others. In these moments, we see individuals as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ or as ends in themselves. Namely, in this mode of existence we see the beauty and complexity of another human being. 

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experience world. Not as a thing among the ‘internal’ things, not as a figment of the ‘imagination’, but as what is present.

Although temporary and fleeting, these moments are entered into with one’s full presence and attention. Those involved in the I-Thou relationship are mutually transformed and become merged into the experience and life of the other.

We are momentarily put into the shoes of someone else and see the world as they do.

I-Thou moments are not limited to encounters with other humans but can be extended to being in relation with nature or other sentient beings. Writing from the tradition of Jewish Hassidism, Buber notes that the ultimate I-Thou connection, which he calls the Eternal Thou, is to be in relation with God.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

For those interested in ‘I and Thou’ I must admit that at times it was a difficult read. Buber writes in aphorisms using poetic and esoteric language that requires one to go over the text a couple of times to understand.

Nonetheless, I found that the concepts explored in the book are increasingly relevant in our hyper technological age. With the advent of social media and exposure to 24/7 news outlets, it is easy to look at other humans as just statistics, numbers or likes on our Instagram posts. Through this type of thinking, we fail to realize the common humanity and uniqueness of others. Each being on this planet is as complex and interesting as each and everyone of us.

‘I and Thou’ reminds us that a much deeper and authentic type of relationship can exists of others. When we see the world as someone else does. When our ‘self’ transcends our body and becomes merged with the world around us. We can’t live forever in these moments, but we can always be prepared for when the next moment arises.

True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is lived in the past

Martin Buber, I and Thou
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

*Quotes taken in the article are from the Walter Kaufmann translation of the book.

Book Review: Yes to Life by Victor E. Frankl

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One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our respective share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are fragile mortal beings subject to illness, loss, heartbreak and disappointment.

Given this shared fate, how can we best endure and embrace our adversities?

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is a compilation of lectures given by Victor Frankl in 1946, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust. Speaking from direct experience from his time in the concentration camps, as well as from his insights working as a psychologist, Frankl reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.

This short yet profound book reminds us of the power of perspective, demonstrating how we can always find the resilience we need within to keep on moving forward in any circumstance.

In this post I want to look at three key themes from the book.  

Meaning Is More Important Than Pleasure

Pleasure itself cannot give our existence meaning

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

Our modern consumerist societies try to sell us on the idea that happiness can be bought. Savvy advertisements persuade us consumers that contentment and fulfillment in life can be realized only when we purchase that luxury car or piece of clothing.

After all, just look at how happy that family is driving the latest Mercedes SUV in that commercial?

Although these consumer goods may give us short-term satisfaction, the excitement quickly dissipates as we are left craving for more.

Frankl argues that while pleasure comes and goes, it is meaning in life that allows us to endure and overcome the challenges we succumb to. By having an overarching purpose or meaning in one’s life, we can find long lasting fulfillment. This is what truly nourishes and sustains us.

Frankl notes that although meaning can be found in a wide range of circumstances, it generally falls into three broad categories:

  1. Active: Creating, acting upon or bringing something into existence. This can include devoting oneself to their work, or pursuing one’s hobbies and passion projects.  
  2. Passive:  Appreciating the world around us, namely through art, nature or by loving others.
  3. Acceptance: Finding meaning and growth through accepting one’s difficulties and putting them into perspective. Frankl echoes the Stoic maxim that while many of the circumstances in our life are outside of our control, we always have the freedom to decide how we react to and interpret these events.  

Authenticity

In his specific life circle, every single human being is irreplaceable and inimitable, and that is true for everyone. The task that his life imposes are only for him, and only he is required to fulfill them.

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

For Frankl, meaning in life is not an inquiry that can be answered broadly or generally. Given the difference in life situations and demands for every individual, there is no ‘one’ answer that is adequate or applicable to everyone.

Rather, each of our lives poses a distinct set of questions that require answers. Every new beginning, adversity or challenge presents an opportunity to find meaning. It is through our unique answers to life’s questions that we find purpose and become authentic human beings – separating ourselves from the crowd.

We must therefore always be aware of how we can use each occasion we are presented to in life as a potential learning experience or lesson. Each of these moments, offers us chance to use it as fuel in working towards a greater goal.

As Frankl writes,

We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. 

Through becoming authentic individuals, we can come to a greater appreciation of what we can distinctly offer the world.  

Being irreplaceable, it is only ‘you’ who can offer humanity your unique gifts.

Taking Responsibility for Life  

At every moment I bear responsibility for the next; that every decision from the smallest to the largest is a decision for all eternity

Victor Frankl, Yes to Life

We all desire freedom, but very few of us want to take on the responsibility for our actions.  

It is true that each of us are dealt different cards in life. We all have experiences where things don’t go our way, when we are treated unfairly or succumb to an illness out of mere chance.  

However, in each of these circumstances what can be more powerful than embracing, overcoming and saying ‘yes to life’. Of course, you didn’t choose this, maybe the predicament you are in wasn’t even your fault, but nonetheless you have two options – you can either change it or accept it.

By accepting the responsibility and burdens of life’s duties, we gradually become more resilient. We grow in courage and in character – one small step at a time.

Conclusion

Yes to Life is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Amidst even the most dire of situations, we can always find a reason to keep pushing through.

In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the future remains riddled with uncertainty. Rather than placing our hopes on external things which we don’t control, Frankl reminds us that we are always free to cultivate one’s inner life. Finding meaning, purpose and perspective in every situation is something that cannot be taken away from us.

To say ‘yes to life’ is to nurture an attitude of acceptance, and continue to hold your ground in the eye of the storm.

This of course is not for the faint of heart, but we can all look to Victor Frankl for inspiration.

 

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

A wonderful review on Yes to Life which inspired me to read this book can be found on brainpickings.org here.