In the old days, prior to Individuality, your Identity was entirely a function of what slot your community plugged you into. You might be the Village Idiot, the Village Chief, the Village Medicine Man, the Village Wise Woman or the Village Whore, but there was no question of you taking on a role outside of the roles predetermined by your village (or tribe or clan, etc.). The invention of the Individual Self was the great innovation of the Western World, and it provided centuries worth of vitality and interest to a world bored with group Identity. The shift towards the Individual Self reached its extreme with the philosophical movement of Existentialism, which held freely willed individual choices to be the ultimate foundation upon which everything else rests. Yet the Individual Self can no more thrive on its own than a head can survive without a body. This is because the Individual Self exists in a constant, unresolvable state of Tension between its Existence and its Desires.
Your Existence consists of all the mundane facts that uniquely specify you as a individual distinguishable from all other individuals. Are you male or female? How old are you? Where do you live? Are you in good health? How tall are you? What race are you? What do you look like? Do you have brothers and sisters? What language do you speak? What kind of personality do you have? What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? Where are you right now, and what are you doing?
Your Existence makes you who you are, but it comes with challenges. First, it’s in flux; the “details of you” are always changing. For example, each day you’re a little older. If you chop vegetables too recklessly, you might lose a finger and suddenly that becomes a permanent part of your Identity. Take a class, and you gain a skill. Get a bump on the head and you lose one. Even your personality may shift throughout the course of the day, with the passage of a month, with the changing of the seasons, or simply in response to how much sleep you got the night before.
Second, the details of your Individual Existence can –and often do– come into conflict with other major component of your Identity, your Desires. Your dream is to become a professional basketball player, but you’re 4′ 8″ tall. You want to have your own biological children, but you’re not sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender. Being able to drive is an important part of your sense of independence, yet you can no longer see well at night. In this way, it is not just the facts of our Existences, but also the patterns of our Desires as played out in opposition to those facts, that make us who we are at the Individual level.
In the not-so-uncommon event that you have become somehow alienated from your own Individual Self, there are things that you can do in order to regain your personal connection with your own persona. One time-honored technique is to pay more attention to your dreams and nightmares. Another is to do what Jungian psychologists call “shadow work,” in order to identify and come to terms with the darker side of your Individual persona, your repressed and rejected Desires. Yet these techniques, as powerful as they are, can do but so much; and if we just consider the Individual Self, we are forced to stop here, forever trapped between the Scylla of our Existence and the Charybdis of our Desires.
If we widen our field of vision, however, we see that the key determinant of how we actually experience our Identity lies outside the Individual Self. It is the Relational Self, the Identity formed within the context of every community to which we belong, that determines how our Individual Self will find its means of Expression. In other words, the life you live will be given shape by the people around you. It is true, as the Existentialists claim, that no one can take away your freedom to make your own choices. You alone are in control of the decisions you make at any given moment. But those choices and decisions will draw their meaning from the shared behavioral vocabulary of your community.
For example, in the highly structured, conformist environment of Japanese primary schools in the nineties, as simple an act as leaving one’s shoelaces untied marked a student as a rebel, a non-conformist and a subversive, gaining her the admiration of peers and the approbation of teachers throughout the school. Yet during the same era, the same act of leaving one’s shoelaces untied would at most mark a student in the more relaxed environment of a typical American school as careless. In order for the same Individual, transplanted from Japan to America, to Express the same Desire to rebel, her behavior would need to be augmented to extreme levels. She would need piercings in her nose, combat boots on her feet and a bomb in her locker in order to garner a comparable level of shock.
We could also consider the imaginary case of a mother who changes neighborhoods and is amazed at the rapid and disturbing changes her child goes through in response. Perhaps he used to be a polite, straight “A” student with an after-school job. Now he is foul-mouthed, rude, and facing charges for drug dealing and murder. In truth, her son’s underlying personality is still the same. He has always been ambitious and driven. In his old life, he used manners as a way to get people to do what he wanted, pursued money by working an after-school job, and channeled his ambition into his schoolwork. Now, however, he lives in a world where the rules are different, and has adjusted his behavior accordingly. Manners get him nowhere among his new peers, but bad language brings respect. His old job involved long hours for little pay, but drug dealing makes him wealthy. Doing homework used to put him at the head of the class, but becoming head of a gang requires a reputation for deadliness. His transformation from honor student to murderer may seem like a Jekyll and Hyde narrative about two completely different people, but on closer inspection it is the story of one consistent personality manifesting in two contrasting ways in two contrasting social contexts.
Given that your community has such a strong impact on the life you lead, are there ways to improve your Relational Self? One answer is that which all our mothers did their best to impress upon us –and for good reason –find a better group of friends. Do your best to integrate yourself into a community that has the values you wish to live into, accomplishes the things you wish to accomplish, and in general, embodies all the traits you most admire. That said, this may be more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the groups that surround us are inescapable. Sometimes a better group is difficult to find, and sometimes ties of blood, history or loyalty keep us bound to the group we already have. It may be difficult to judge a group accurately from the outside, and even if you do find your ideal group, it may be impossible to gain entry to it, or to take on your preferred role within that group. Thus if we go no further than the Relational Self we can be nothing more than the passive product of our environments.
At this point we’ve seen you tormented at an Individual level by the unbridgeable gap between your Existence and Desires, and compelled at a Relational level into the modes of Expression entailed by the community to which you belong. Is that all there is to life? It might be, were there not one final self, a self rejected by the Existentialists and debunked by the Empiricists, a self largely forgotten by the modern age –your Universal Self.
It may be easiest to think of this as your Ideal self, the best possible “you” you could be. This is a you that thinks like you, looks like you, sounds like you and has every facet of your personality, down to its very core, yet without the selfishness, destructiveness, willfulness, greed, envy and other weaknesses of the you that actually manifests within the world. But is this Universal You just a dream, illusion or fiction (as claimed by both the Existentialists and the Empiricists) or is it somehow latent inside you, waiting to be brought into the world?
Fortunately, there is a simple, effective and reliable method to draw ever closer to your Universal Self, and to do so, moreover, without giving up your Individual Self in the process. That method is first to identify your unique gifts and talents; second to develop them to their highest extent; and third to put them to work on the behalf of your community. If you love music, become the best musician you can be, and then play for those around you. If you are good with your hands, become a builder, and build homes for the homeless. If you like to be in charge, develop yourself as a leader, and lead people in a positive direction.
If you apply this method consistently and conscientiously; if you are willing to cycle through the process repeatedly; if you keep strictly to positive initiatives, rather than initiatives that primarily act in opposition to someone else; and if you always interpret “your community” as broadly as possible (i.e. as all of humanity rather than narrowly as in just your own friends and family) you cannot help but move progressively closer to your Universal Self. Furthermore, in doing so, you will find that embodying your Universal Self not only helps you resolve the Tensions inherent in your Individual Self, it will also help you become your best possible Relational Self, by bringing you into your best possible relationship with those around you.
NEXT WEEK: Back to Art