January 29, 2017
Just days before the media blanketed us with “alternative facts” and other newly popular distortions of truth, a lovely student in Hong Kong stood up at the end of a one day, eight hour class and asked,
“Could you tell me how to go about figuring out my identity?”
It was 5pm, the lecture had ended, but no one left. They waited in silence for an answer. I wished I had another eight hours.
I began by suggesting she can never fully know herself. I recommended that, as would any depth psychotherapist, philosopher, or theologian, she begin by looking into herself. She might track her dreams, I said, or her interests, her friendships, her love life, her preferences in painting, sculpture, literature, movies, theater, and the other arts. In this way, she could find trends in her desires, wishes, beliefs, attitudes, emotions.
Actually, identity exists as a dialectic, a dialogue, a continuum. On one end of the spectrum the self doesn’t exist at all. Buddhism and Taoism proclaim it is nothing but an illusion, even a delusion. Nietzsche, writing from the western philosophical tradition, writes:
“In some remote corner of the sprawling universe, twinkling among the countless solar systems, there was once a star on which some clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant, most mendacious minute in ‘world history,’ but it was only a minute. After nature caught its breath a little, the star froze, and the clever animal had to die. One could invent a fable like this and still not have illustrated sufficiently how miserable, how shadowy and fleeting, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect appears in nature.”
In other words, we know essentially nothing about anything, including who we think we are. We made it all up, based on our extremely limited view of the universe.
On the other end of the continuum of identity lie consistent schemas or trends. The knowledge need not be clever or arrogant; it is based on our subjective experience. It has some kind of structure, a predictability. Derrida uses the term “bricolage” to describe the process through which identities are created. We construct them from found objects. In other words, who you are, as a person, consists of an incomplete array of biological propensities, relational patterns learned in early childhood, cultural influences, and historical context. It’s helpful to discover your identity — as long as you remember it exists in motion, ever changing. Although identity takes on noun like forms such as “I like documentaries; I am a father; I am an attorney,” it much more accurately exists as a verb. Thus, the phrase — human being — suggestive in and of itself as a dynamic, evolving entity.
I hope the Hong Kong student, immersed in a culture that sponsored Buddhism and Taoism for centuries, finds some organizing themes to guide her, some nouns if you will, while still acknowledging the fluidity of her identity.
Submitted with fatigue (verb) this Sunday night,
Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference. A. Bass, Trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2010) On truth and untruth: selected writings. T. Carman, Trans. and Ed. New York: Harper.
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