what is life ? i am not able to understand the things around me. i am not able to define myself, my position.

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

Reconstructivist Art: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

American Born Chinese centers around what at first seem like three very different narratives.  The first is a superhero-themed retelling of a beloved classic tale from Chinese mythology, the story of the kung-fu practicing Monkey King.  The second is a realistic, contemporary story about a young Asian American boy, and his struggles to fit in at an almost wholly white school.  The third and final narrative is a sitcom about a white boy named Danny, and the mischief caused in his life by the yearly visits of his cousin “Chin-Kee”, a walking conglomeration of every possible offensive stereotype about Asians.  What makes the work a tour de force, however, is the way Yang swiftly, unexpectedly and yet credibly brings together the three narratives at the end, revealing them to be linked not merely thematically but also as facets of a single unifed storyline.

  1. Nod to Artifice:  Although the cartoon format is highly contrived to begin with, Yang further heightens the sense of artifice with the framing device for his third narrative, which is presented as an American sitcom, complete with an intrusive laugh track.
  2. Iconic and Transcontexual Elements:  The most notable examples of this are the Monkey King, an icon of traditional Chinese myth transposed to a number of alien settings throughout the book, and his counterpart Chin-Kee, a montrous being uniting a host of iconically offensive elements.  Other, less prominent icons include the herbalist’s wife, who represents the archetypal figure of the wise but sinister old woman, and a wide variety of pop culture references and icons, including Transformer toys, a high school named after a racially insensitive cartoonist, a reference to American Idol non-singer William Hung, and a cartoon representation of a popular You Tube video featuring two young Asian lip-synchers.
  3. Classic Structure:  Although Yang’s triple narrative structure is nothing if not innovative and unique, the three narratives considered separately all have familiar structures –the first story is patterned after the classic myth it borrows from, the second has elements of a teenage romantic comedy, and the last is a parody of a typical sitcom episode.  In addition, the larger story arc can be considered as having a traditional three act structure, with the caveat that all three acts are presented simultaneously.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion and Significance:  Stripped of its trappings, the heart of “ABC” is a starkly honest story that will be both familiar and relatable to anyone who has ever sacrificed some portion of his or her identity in order to fit in –which is to say, everyone.

what is human nature

This ranks among the most important questions human beings must strive to answer. It’s also one of the most difficult.

There are three contrasting approaches typically used in answering this question. The first is pragmatic: Human nature is what humans do. The second is aspirational: Human nature is an ideal towards which we should strive. The third is constructivist: Human nature is what we say it is.

The first approach might be described as an anthropological research project. To pursue it, we simply look for patterns and commonalities in the behaviors of human beings around the world; and from there generalize to a description of human nature that reads as a list of typical traits and pursuits. Thus, for example, we might describe human beings as tool-making, building-constructing, art-loving, deity-worshiping, word-forming and/or war-mongering beings.

As sensible as the first approach may seem, it has substantial flaws. For one, there is tremendous variability among the cultures of the world. Is there any activity that is is so genuinely universal that every single human being (or even every single human society) practices it? And if so, is it truly unique to human beings, or is it something –such as eating or sleeping –that we share with all the other animals of the world?

A second major flaw in this approach is that it is purely descriptive. It tells us only what is, but gives us no basis for gaining understanding or making judgments. For instance, the sample list above claims that religion is a part of human nature, but doesn’t explain why, or whether that might be a good thing or a bad thing.

A third, and related flaw is that this approach seemingly locks us into the behaviors of the past. If warmongering is a part of human nature (as claimed above) does that mean that war is something we can never ever escape? Or is it possible that human nature might change in the future?

The second approach has a long and distinguished history in philosophy. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pursuit of virtues and ideals (such as Wisdom, Love, Truth and Beauty) as the correct aim of human nature, while his student Aristotle focused on a more earthbound set of “excellences” (such as skill in debate, skill in governance, skill in warfare, and so forth) as the true “measure of a man.” On the other side of the world the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius also advocated a similar approach.

The key advantage to this approach is that it celebrates the best in human nature, and in doing so offers a promise that we can become better as a species; even offering putative guidance towards transcending our weaknesses and eliminating our faults. As good as this may sound, however, this approach also has weaknesses. First, it is vulnerable to the charge of being an unfounded fantasy, divorced from reality –what evidence is there that Plato’s ideals have anything to do with “human nature” at all? Second, it raises the question of who sets the standards, and how can we ensure that they are universal and not ethnocentric –as in the case of many of the “excellences” of Confucius and Aristotle, which can seem strange and alien to a modern day observer in the West. Third, while it offers the possibility of progress towards an ideal of human nature, it does not simultaneously offer the possibility that human nature itself might progress. Thus, it runs the risk of being made obsolete by the changes in the human experience; most notably the increasing importance of technology of various kinds, and the effects on human societies of the worldwide crises of global warming and overpopulation.

The third approach, to claim that human nature is what we make of it, has a degree of freedom and openness, and a sense of personal agency and impact missing from the other two approaches. Yet by itself, it is far the weakest, possessing neither the direct connection to the real world of the first approach, nor the guidance and inspiration of the second approach. It thus threatens to reduce the entire concept of human nature to meaninglessness.

Rather than wholly adopting any one of these approaches, I would instead advocate a “reconstructivist” approach that draws from all three.

First, I think we need the anthropological background of the first approach in order to place human nature within a context; to let us know where we have come from, and what are the social, biological, spiritual and evolutionary pressures that have shaped us as a species. But from that point forward, I think we need to combine the second and third approaches in order to reconstruct a new vision of human nature that is responsive to the realities of the modern era, but that emphasizes the best potentials of human beings in order to create a brighter future.

In broad general outline, this is the way I would envision a reconstructed human nature:

First, I would reemphasize a range of traditional human practices, such as homemade meals enjoyed slowly and communally, face-to-face conversations, getting from place to place by foot (and living in places and ways that make that possible), community gardening and social dancing. These types of things have long histories in nearly all human cultures and therefore evoke a strong visceral response from most people.

Second, I would also reemphasize the arts and humanities, and practices such as music, painting, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and so forth –these are practices that developed over the course of millennia towards the purpose of showcasing the unique aptitudes of human beings.

As far as attitudes towards age, I would reinstate an attitude of respect towards elders, as representatives of tradition and repositories of wisdom, but not to the innovation-stifling extent practiced by most traditional societies. At the same time I would reinforce the modern era’s attitude of respect towards the young, as representatives of innovation and sources of creativity, but not to the tradition-trampling extent practiced by most modern societies.

Some long-established facets of human nature would need to be discarded. Chief among these is the old equation of fecundity = happiness. Children are unquestionably our most precious resource, but our way of expressing that can and must change. I am an opponent of abortion, but I strongly support voluntary preventative birth control. We must embrace the fact that sexual activity is no longer synonymous with procreation. At the same time, we need to promote adoption as an alternative and as a supplement to biological family creation.

Something else that must be eliminated is the human tendency to go to war. The urge to compete is a necessary and positive element of human nature, but competition through violence has outlived whatever utility it once possessed. The new machines of war are so deadly, powerful and horrific, that we must unequivocally ensure they can never be deployed.

In addition, we must all take on a conservationist mindset with respect to natural resources. The past record of humanity on this is mixed. There have been societies, generally in resource rich environments, that have been successful despite their consumerist leanings, while other societies have thrived in resource poor environments through conservation. As the planet transitions from a resource rich to a resource poor environment, however, the human species as a whole must make the shift from a consumerist nature to a conservationist nature.

A modern student of humanity must also consider the place of technology in questions of human identity. On one hand, the invention and utilization of technology is one of the most characteristic of all human activities and traits. But on the other hand, the increasing pervasiveness of technological devices has had what can only be described as a dehumanizing effect on many people and societies.

I would argue for the following: first that we moderate our use of technology, instituting technological sabbaths similar to those practiced by Orthodox Jews, and scaling back our reliance on devices such as cell phones and PDAs. Second, that we change our technological focus away from dehumanizing instantiations of technology such as weapon development, cosmetic surgery and mass productive machinery, and towards more positive aims such as desert reclamation, clean energy production and preventative medicine. Finally, that we should less on physical/material technologies and more on the creation of a new set of social and cultural technologies that will help us better deal with one another as human beings.

‘actions’ speak louder than words, how can i know that the actions are just a ‘smoke screen’

I think the philosophical answer here is that it’s our beliefs, commitments and values that lend our actions consistency. If the image we present to the world is at odds with our core commitments, then that mismatch will tend to be betrayed in small ways. There’s an old truism that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she treats the waiters and waitresses in a restaurant. So my advice would be this. Watch the person carefully, not in terms of how he or she behaves towards you, but towards others. Is he or she kind or rude to service personnel, children, animals, significant others, parents, acquaintances and so forth? How does he or she react under pressure or when uncomfortable? Have you met family members, close friends, employees or so forth, and if so, what did they say about the person?

In addition, pay close attention to what that person says about others. Who does he or she admire, who does he or she despise? Both the traits that the person admires, and (paradoxically) the traits he or she finds particularly bothersome are clues as to the secret personality beneath the façade.

In my opinion how someone treats other people is the most important question, but there are other clues available as well. What does his or her home or workspace look like? How does he or she respond to tasks? To criticism? To praise? To gifts? To disappointments?

In sum, I would say that most people are constantly broadcasting who they really are, even if they have an image that is quite different. The key is to be observant enough to see the real person beneath, and to resist the urge to fool oneself into believing that someone is better –or worse! –than he or she really is.