Selfhood

“Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality — sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited.”

[…]

“Not all these allegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality — we might almost call them “genes of the soul” so long as we remember that most of them are not innate.”

“While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it’s this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.”

~ Amin Maalouf

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~ Becoming a self is serious work. ‘Self’ meaning the most powerful identity we house our innermost being within. Perhaps it is self-attributed. Or it is thrust upon us by outer forces. Maybe there is no self; our copious collected identities and the meaty composition of our physical frame the full monty, in varying degrees of force and meaning.

The basic truth is that each of us inhabits a party of identities. At any given moment, we are donning masks for a variety of venues, entering and exiting them at consequential speeds. They have their basis in the things we have pursued and in the things which have pursued us. We play the role of the son and the sire; the friend, the lover, the colleague, the boss; the consumer and the creator. Being born into a place and a people affords us with a tapestry of prior history we can learn from. Being raised amidst a diverse vista of intersecting cultures amplifies our experience and our capacity for empathy. Together, we are all progressing towards a future in which we are building new identities, inextricably forged together in the environs which we find ourselves operating. These environs are constantly changing, much like the gradations of our identity.

Regarding the mechanista behind the multitudinous nature of our internal lives, there is something to be said concerning its progression. It might not be absolutely necessary for us to understand how the components came about — nature, nurture, nowhere in particular. But it’s imperative to somehow wield the elemental ingredients of our selfhood with some manner of conviction to continue, to imagine, to flourish our life along its path.

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Give a moment to consider how much is inside you. The chaotic changes and progressions you have endured have shaped certain aspects of your demeanor. It hasn’t gone away; maybe it’s changed over time and maybe it has developed the whole of your inner. Within the many contexts that you find yourself operating, much of the way that we define our way of life has likely sourced from moments we cannot remember. The way – our way – is much more complicated than we make it out to be, and it’s also never quite set in stone.

Now contemplate similar phenomena occurring within each and every person you know. Like the articulation of our individual faces, there is no exact comparisons within these compositions. No two persons inhabit the same combination of identities; no one’s personal makeup is simply understood or engaged with. In the wider world, the identities and their combinations — all in relationship to one another — expand without end; through population explosion, culture exchange and on through the advancements of science and technology — we are creating a collective made up of selves defined by their complicated interrelationships to one another. All of it is moving much too fast for us to be able to process or comprehend; and yet, we must go forth.

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I imagine the identification of our selfhood as a singular person standing for the moment under a searchlight. The light starts directly overhead, creating a matrix of shadows upon the ground on all sides. Each is similar in composition, in its basic outline, but differing in gradient, shape, and motion. They remain but change over time. As the light begins to move, or the person contributing these figures does, each of the shades shifts simultaneously. The dual movement of these forces together — the environment in tandem with our traits — tends to create new shapes and new identities forged from the old ones. In time, we can see some of our shadows we leave upon the ground have grown to cover more ground, some have been dispelled entirely, and some are yet to be cast by lights we’ve yet to approach.

This imagining posits identity as something far-ranging and progressive, developing over long periods of time as anything else does. Much as gender is fluid, on a spectrum of many possible experiences — so is this holistic thing we call identity. Much the same, its generation and development comes to define how we see ourselves and our worldview. Our self may or may not be a choice, but none can deny its importance.

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It makes sense that the lense through which we view the world is colored by our experience and the expectations afforded because of it. Our own history builds this lense. Identity is consequential because it helps to determine our outlook and what we pay attention to within our closest communities. Our span for attention and the sentiments we come to value dictate our intentions in our lives. Our sense of self, the being we see ourselves to be — whether it’s a true sight or no — is integral to everything we care about; it is intrinsic, it is formative in how we make our way throughout this strange world. I think we all implicitly understand this, even if we never step back from it, from time to time.

And lest we forget, through all of this there is immense conflict. The elements of our selfhood, and our identities alongside them, battling within and without our native frame, do tend to generate some of the more crucial and devastating conflicts we see. Internally, we are in a constant state of compromising, borrowing and lending finite resources from and for each of our identities. There are tremendous existential costs to choosing one over another, and to abandoning one or taking on more.

Identity politics, tribalism, the time-honored corruption of racial animus and the many-faced hydra of prejudice in all its forms, make up the assorted battlefields of identity in our culture and our politics. When our identities come up against one another, in the game of resources and power, they are used as weaponry in wars of culture. Often lines are drawn and individuals are compelled into these groups unconsciously to stand at the ready to defend a collective livelihood. Sociocultural and institutional advantages and disadvantages make up some of the incentives to focus on within these in and out-group identity wars. Some wield their weaponry with conviction, thinking their identity superior, while others are merely drawn into the conflict out of necessity.

This manner of thinking can become toxic, amplifying cultural conflicts without any rational endgame. However, for many it is necessary to safely operate in society and try their hand at moving up within the hierarchies presented. There’s enough built-up history now — between races, cultures, identities — for mere forgiveness and even some manner of reparation to not be enough, in many people’s minds. The conflicts continue along these lines, trading backlashes seemingly without end. And for a variety of reasons, socioeconomic class is often overlooked as a source of animus between groups, with questions of race and sexual orientation taking center stage. In general, a sense of progression is certainly lacking in this arena of modern culture, especially in the United States.

It is unfortunate to see just how far we still have to go. And in a consideration of progress, I am not speaking of ‘tolerance.’ I speak from the perspective of true progression. I speak of a paradigm shift to an appreciation of the entire cultural landscape, learning from our interdependence as beings living and trying to flourish within the same environments; I speak simply that diversity of peoples and cultures and perspectives and identities makes us better. In the modern, diversified society, we learn from one another like never before and every interaction, good or bad, increases empathy and informs our collective future. I sincerely believe that.

If we had to posit the best possible outcome — it would be to view each other first as individuals, and then see sex, ethnicity, and vocation simply as augmentations to our interrelationships as human beings, deepening the threads of our cultural richness. From this perspective, there should be pride in the construction of self — the kind of pride we afford to the best of our principles — such as honesty. For an embrace of our truest selfhood is nothing more than a coalescing of our identity — in all of its messy, existentially imperative conflicts — alongside those of the individuals we find around us — of whom we generally forget are going through the similar struggles.

Struggling to find our own identity should lend credence to the idea of understanding other perspectives; an understanding of our own chimeric and complex sense of self paves the way for an extrinsic respect and empathy for everyone else.

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Becoming this self is a journey. But it is to be undertaken together. We are better off understanding one another through the lense of an enhanced, even ascendant identity — that of a person, consciously collaborating among other striving persons. Becoming intimately acquainted with our own conflicting identities lays the foundation for a charitable understanding of someone else’s conflict. ~

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