Who Sculpts Your Identity? — Part I

Pasadena, California
Thursday, August 10, 2017


Who Sculpts Your Identity? — Part I

Despite your passion for personal freedom, you may find the many constricting forces shaping your sense of self humbling.

Consider how language, geography, biology, and culture sculpt you:

If you live in America, you probably speak English. You think in English; you communicate in English; you dream in English.

The language is not the native tongue of the U.S. (Where I live, the first human language would be the one used by the Chumash). English, emerging from Anglo-Frisian dialects, was brought to Britain during the dark ages by Germanic invaders. It was not even the original language there.

You use a language you never chose.

It informs the way you view yourself.

If you were born here, you certainly did not chose the country. Heidegger refers to this as our “thrownness,” our metaphorically waking up, looking around, and feeling puzzled at our place in the world.

The poet, A.E. Housman, captures the feeling with the phrase

I, a stranger and afraid.
In a world I never made. 

The concept of “thrownness” is also suggested by the lyrics of the Talking Heads song, Once In A Lifetime: 

And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

How did you get here?

If “here” means the United States, then, further, you are required to abide by its laws. You did not choose these laws. You can attempt to exercise your freedom by, say, trying to escape the police car — lights flashing and sirens blaring — that implores you to pull over. You will likely not succeed. Even if you do, continued violation of the laws will almost certainly land you in prison, hardly a paragon of personal freedom.

And then there’s the powerful influence of culture. It’s impact is ubiquitous, so I focus only on the fashion industry. It sways your choice of clothing — hats, shoes, accessories. The textile industry literally has meetings, years ahead of the release of each season’s garments, to select which color spectrum to emphasize. Fads have a strong, unconscious influence on all of us. You may think the blouse you select is uniquely you; you may then see it all over the place.

Yet another constriction on your sense of self results from your limitations as a biological entity. Causing the only major shift in Western philosophy since Socrates, Immanuel Kant noted, during the mid-18th century, that we humans only perceive the world through our five sense organs. Our knowledge base — the humanities, the sciences, the arts — emerged from such sensory input processed through our central nervous systems.

You didn’t choose that limited way of knowing the world, or yourself, either.

Scrolling back to the influence of fashion, the neurosciences have identified sets of “mirror neurons” causing we homo sapiens to mimic one another. On the one hand, they offer a capacity for empathy that helpfully promotes bonding. On the other hand, they facilitate a harmful “monkey see, monkey do” mentality.

Have you noticed, as I do, how many people are using phrases like “doubling down” all of the sudden? Or how every television news program returns from a commercial break with a banner reading BREAKING NEWS?

Examples of mirror neurons wildly firing abound:

Mobile phone apps, dating websites, meet-up groups, online courses, Facebook, Match, Meet-up, etc.

Jean-Paul Sartre writes:

We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us.

Good stuff, but way too grandiose.

I suggest, instead:

  1. Identify how these external sculptors form your identity;
  2. Surrender to those forces you cannot change, like biologically determined ones such as height or age.
  3. Take bold steps towards authentically expressing the desires you can.

I’m thinking of coloring my gray hair bright green, wearing a Toga, and restricting my food intake to bamboo shoots.

However, those choices, however freeing, would rapidly close down my psychoanalytic practice.

Luckily for my financial future, the human imagination is:




Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. Trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper. (Original work published in 1927).

Kant, I. (2007). Critique of pure reason. Trans. M. Mueller. New York: Penguin. (Original work published in 1781).

Sartre, S-P. (1943). Being and nothingness. Trans. H.E. Barnes. New York: Simon and Schuster.







(If you like this blog, please tell your friends, family, and pets to subscribe by opening up alankarbelnig.com, clicking on any blog, scrolling to the bottom, and sign up. Like any selfless writer, I always seek more readers. Thanks so much! – Alan)





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