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An Inward Bound Dinghy

March 20, 2020
- Atharva Shukla, Surya

“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.”

- Carl Jung

Among the innumerable problems that a person faces in his/her life, a select few individuals decide to concentrate on the quandary of finding their true self. This number is on a gradual increase in our society, ripe with dysphoria. Deranged individuals collectively drown in their cesspool of anxiety, while worrying about the meaning of life. Knowing one’s goals and personal image may appear to be straightforward, but if this were so, literary discourse would not have grappled with this search of self for several centuries. This article is another attempt to do the same.

We are by nature storytelling animals, and in our mind lies a journal in which we constantly update our life stories and the concept of our own self. But this internal narration of the kind of person we are, might become the very reason for our actions. These actions might further reinforce our belief of who we are. So what part of us is true to us and what part of it is induced?

The Muddled Within

For now, whatever is written would be under the assumption of the existence of an inherent true self in each one of us. True self, or the ‘inherent’ self, is an abstract idea characterised by our tendency to conform to a certain type of behaviour in the absence of an external/societal bias. The notion of the non-existence of this true self is discomforting since it strips us off of any individuality we are believed to possess. This essentially leads us to the conclusion that apart from our physical features, all of us were the same at one point of time. Hence theoretically we could create a replica of any human being, by providing a bunch of carbon atoms with the same external stimuli that shaped the persona of the original person.

This line of thought laughs in the face of our existence, and turns us into mere marionettes, puppeteered by a relentless universe that seems to have orchestrated our darkest desires and guilty pleasures. One would assume that humans across the world don’t want to lead lives like that - as characters in a scarily sophisticated video game. We make the comfortable choice here, and accept the existence of an inherent true self.

This assumption seems to be intuitive; twins despite being exposed to similar external factors develop very differently. It appears to be that even though an individual works in an inherited societal formula, the perceptions of it differ. An individual ultimately acts as an idiosyncratic interpreter of this formula, and derives unique value from it.

The Facade Without

Humans think about themselves - this statement is hardly surprising, but the trait is unique to us. This self reflection morphs into an internalized narrative of one’s competencies, traits and values. We don’t need to seriously weigh the pros and cons while making a number of decisions - we make them automatically and subconsciously. This is because our identity provides a pivot for us to do so. We feel we know who we are because of the length of time we spend with ourselves, and the amount of autobiographical memories we possess. We can always look back at them and realise the kind of person we should be, the decisions we should take. Therefore the self has for long been regarded as a shaper of behaviour while simultaneously being the product of situations.

Humans are social animals, and hence the reception of approval has a positive feedback on this belief system that we subconsciously develop. We try to model ourselves in ways that please those around us and whatever seems to be good for us, to be a functional part of a society. As we continue to waltz through our lives, this picture begins to form a mind of its own and somewhere along the line gives birth to a whole belief system that now defines us. This might create a terrifying cycle, which becomes excruciatingly difficult to escape from. This is dubbed as our self concept.

The Dilapidated Viaduct

The Dilapidated Viaduct

How stable is this belief that we hold about ourselves? Are we capable of living under a garb of false identity without realising it?

The eldest boy in a family of five, after a long hard day at school, is expected to be patient while the mother tends to the needs of the younger, innocuous looking sibling. He’s also expected to make sacrifices by giving up on the larger piece of chocolate or his favourite TV show, on the pretext of being older and hence somehow wiser? He never gets to portray his true emotions, because the parents might expect the child to be well behaved and exude ideality. Over time, these expectations only intensify, and the child’s response seeps into his personality; he starts acting as people expect him to, in a way he thinks he should.

A significant part of our ‘self’ is built during our early childhood, when we aren’t mentally developed enough to make sense of the things happening around us. Questioning it becomes increasingly difficult, because of the sheer amount of time we have already spent believing in it by the time we reach adolescence. This is hugely problematic, because a person can’t detect their own problems from the outset (because of the self-narrative ingrained in their minds); thus they go through a tumultuous period in their lives as they choose to either accept things as they are, or try to change them to the best of their abilities . This is characterised by frustration - when they realise that they have not been what they want to be or who they really are. It is evident that the problem arises when our self concept does not align with reality, that is, it is incongruent with our true self. It turns out that the self-concept is susceptible to manipulation, and a person can indeed suppress their true self.

Neitzsche too believed that the incompetence of a person to be their own selves in a society will slowly lead to a feeling of alienation and a disintegration of social identity. This develops into a condition in which the love a person has for their life is passionless and numb as they desperately try to grapple with two versions of themselves at once.

Tear Down The Walls

Tear Down The Walls

How do we change the life story we have been developing for ourselves and try to replace it with a more accurate one? How do we change our minds about who we have believed we are, and question the cornerstone of our own identity?

The rationality of the beliefs we hold about ourselves, the very rationality that most of us build and base our entire lives on, is suddenly seen in a different light - threatened and vulnerable. Presumably, you start with a view about what your “true” self is and then go on to repudiate that view. That advice though would be akin to advising a terminally ill patient to “not die”. We’ve lived our entire lives one way, and now we are asked to define something else as our true self - the real life equivalent of “change your avatar”.

“It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.”

The classic leisure theory introduced by Aristotle serves as a basis for all modern theories related to self actualisation. This finds its roots 2300 years ago, when Aristotle hypothesised that happiness - defined by him as the ultimate goal of life - depended on leisure. He advocated that leisure was the right way to live - as opposed to taking intermittent breaks from work to do so. This idea was characterised by doing what you wanted to do, not what you had to. A similar theory was put forward by Csikszentmihalyi. Using the building blocks of intrinsic motivation and peak experiences, Csikszentmihalyi argued that to truly enjoy yourself is to satisfy intrinsic goals. He argued that with time, one realises that getting rich, owning a bigger house etc. does not contribute to one’s happiness. These are goals that have been imposed on us by society. To truly be happy, one must look for activities during which nothing else seems to matter, the sense of time itself gets distorted. He classified this feeling as ‘experiencing flow’. Experiencing flow is to be accompanied by a loss of self consciousness - forgetting ourselves while performing an activity we undertake is what contributes to us finding peace, and eventually the growth of our self.

For those readers who are skeptical about the narrative of a singular true self that this article has explored so far, humans have also hypothesized the existence of a dynamic true self, rather than a singular one which is waiting to be realised. The possibility of having a dynamic self seems more plausible. Such an ever-evolving nature of the self makes it seem like an elusive and unattainable prize. This is summarized in what Pieper said, “we are essentially on the way, beings who are not yet”. This introduction of a dynamic self does not refute the idea of an innate self, it only introduces the idea of multiple selves changing through the course of time. It is more about being ‘yourself’ in the moment and doing what you get the maximum joy out of, at that particular point in time.

An important feature of authenticity and self discovery is to steer yourself towards your intrinsic desires while carefully navigating away from societal influences. It is difficult to realise what you truly are, but by rejecting what you are not, you realise what you must be. An internal state of ‘being’, described by intrinsic motivation and experiencing ‘self’ is how change takes place. There can never be a definite answer to this dilemma of realising what your true self is; these experiences as put forward by Csikszentmihalyi can never be described in words. Each of us will have a different interpretation and experience of these incorporeal realisations.

“Your entire life you feel like you’re drowning with the exception of these moments, these very rare, brief instances, in which you suddenly remember you can swim. But, then again, mostly not. Mostly you’re drowning.”

- Bojack Horseman

In this life, there almost certainly will be times when you feel you are being suffocated, and the metaphorical walls seem to be closing in, as you vie for another breath of air. These rare instances (flow experiences) make you feel that you can remain afloat even as the tide hightens. One needs to strive towards things/people that make one feel different; emotions that one has never experienced before. These are the moments we live for. These are the moments we can try to live for. That is how we ought to get closer to our true selves. Or at least that’s what we can hope for.

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

- Henry David Thoreau



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