Who Are You?
I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance about an experience they had where someone claimed to have a physical disability based on their subjective impression of their “true self.” My acquaintance would, I think, consider themselves to be a fairly progressive politically, and is quite passionately committed to speaking up for the marginalized in our world. And yet they found this experience (and the broader trend it points to; see here, for example) enormously frustrating. Someone dear to them lives with a disability and is well-acquainted with the difficulties of navigating the world that come along with this. The idea that physically healthy person would claim to be disabled as a form of social currency was offensive to them, and I think quite rightly so.
Our conversation was a wide-ranging one, but at one point we landed on a cluster of thorny conundrums that our present moment lays bare. How do we construct and articulate a stable anthropology in a world where the subjective self is deemed to be possess virtually unimpeachable insight into one’s true nature? What about the fact that our subjective selves change over time? What about the enormous pressure that so many people (particularly the young) feel to create and project a unique identity out there into the world for affirmation? How does this pressure affect how we think about ourselves? And what do we do with the obvious truth that our subjective selves are sometimes wrong and lead us down deeply destructive paths that hurt ourselves and others?
Last week, David Brooks wrote an article in The New York Times called “How to Find Out Who You Are” that touched on some of these themes. I was struck by the following passage:
The worst advice you can give to people trying to find themselves is to look within. That presumes a person is like an onion, with layers of social selves to peel off to get closer and closer to the inner core, the true self. The idea is that if you sit in a room with yourself and focus on yourself, you will get in touch with the “real you” or self-actualize the “real you.”
People who try this sometimes find there is no “real you,” or they just make up a bunch of stories and poses about who they think themselves to be.
That’s because a person is not a closed system that can be studied in isolation. A self exists only in relation to something else, while perceiving something and interacting with the world.
Brooks says that human beings are “mimetic creatures.” We learn by imitation. We negotiate who we are in conversation with those who have gone before us (if we are wise), those on the journey with us in the present, and various ideals that we pick up (again, if we are wise) from philosophy, religion, aesthetics, etc. We are not isolated repositories of glorious individual uniqueness. We are thoroughly social creatures, forever telling ourselves stories about who we are, or want to be, or think that we should be. And we are thoroughly tribal creatures, seeking always to be affirmed, to belong, to have our selves validated by those around us.
This is one of the troubling features of our cultural moment. Many people believe (or claim to believe) that the true self is discovered only by looking inward, by peeling back the onion, as it were. This story has a lot of traction out there in the world and it is an attractive one for many. But in reality, we are always enacting a different, truer story which is that we are thoroughly mimetic creatures, and our identities are socially negotiated. And so, we look around and we see a culture that rewards the performance of identity, a culture where status and affirmation are gained by the cultivation and projection of ever more exotic (and often wounded) selves, and we end up in a place where a reasonably healthy person could claim to be physically disabled based on their subjective impression of their true identity. This is not an honest or a stable anthropology.
We need a more accurate anthropology, certainly. But even beyond that, we need an understanding of ourselves that makes mercy possible. We will never arrive at some perfect understanding of who we are that is gloriously untainted by desire and self-interest. But I worry that understanding ourselves primarily as individual vectors of identity turns our collective life into a zero-sum game where we are all pursuing the same social currency in the same ways. Our shared life and discourse become adversarial and ever more polarizing. We perceive one another and our differing identities ever more as threats and irritants. We have less patience and understanding for our weaknesses and limitations, demanding moral perfection from one another and crushing those who do not measure up to standards that shift at the pace of the internet.
You would probably expect a pastor to say something like what follows, but I say it not just as a pastor but as a human being who has tried to pay attention to the world and to human beings for a few decades. We need a genuinely Christian anthropology.
- We are created, gloriously and uniquely, by a God whose image we bear.
- We have the capacity for soaring virtue and love and beauty.
- We are tragically bent in on ourselves, prone to violence, self-worship, and may other self-destructive tendencies.
- We are loved and held and forgiven by God and called to extend these same things to one another.