When I was teaching Humanities, as part of my lecture on existentialism I encouraged my students, high school seniors, to do more than just “find themselves” when they went off to college. The existentialists might encourage them to “invent themselves.” If “existence precedes essence,” as the existentialists say, then you might not have a core essence that you can find when you get away from your family and friends. You can create a new identity.
Kim recently raised this issue as we were waiting for our television to load a movie: “How can you stop being you?” Then she asked her question another way: “How can you step outside of yourself?” I should alert you here that I, my thumb poised to hit the “Play” button to start the movie, did not come up with an answer. But now, after several weeks of deep thinking on Kim’s questions, I still have no answer.
People do make this kind of change. The most obvious examples are people who fake their way into a new career – you know, passing yourself off as a doctor, a psychologist, or a president. But it’s not easy. I know this because I’ve had the same New Year’s Resolution for several decades now, and I’m never going to be that emotionally open and available guy. The best I can do is to create a version of that person in my blog, but as writers know, that’s a persona, a character who perhaps resembles part of me. And I’ve tried to invent myself as a person capable at household maintenance, but the steps to the beach that I just power washed show that I have not made the jump to that new identity.
But Kim has something else in mind. It may have something to do with sensitivity about how other people see you – perhaps as revealed through an overheard remark or tone of voice. It’s always possible to misinterpret, of course, but sometimes our sense of self reflects how we think others see us. The task, then, is to “rebrand” ourselves – a term I dislike, but it may fit here. Get a haircut. Grow a beard. Come out of the closet. Get tattoos. Learn to dance. Realize that the clothes you wear are really the costume that your character is wearing to define himself or herself.
No, Kim’s questions go deeper than that. Who you are is a product of your genetic inheritance, your dealings with your parents, and your dealings with other significant people such as friends, siblings, teachers, and other significant adults. All of this leads to a self-image, one that often emerges in your dreams. Can you change that self-image, “stop being you,” as Kim put it?
One of our favorite movies, “What the Bleep Do We Know?,” suggests that it is possible to rewire our neural connections, changing some of the associations and behavioral patterns that are part of who we are. Part. But this seems more like what we do in breaking habits and perhaps creating new ones, and I like to think that my identity is more than the collection of my habits. Some days, however, I’m not so sure. But what the bleep to I know?
I have to pause here to mention a favorite parent-child exchange from a John Updike story. The teen-aged kid defiantly tells his parents, “I didn’t ask to be born.” The father replies, “When we decided to have a child, we didn’t think it would be you.” This has nothing to do with the matter at hand, but it’s my blog so I am wedging it in.
Meanwhile, the truth may lie in a suggestion our friend Sue made to Kim: Despite everything that we can change, our “essence” does not change. If you were essentially an asshole at birth, you will always be an asshole. Likewise, if you are a mensch. All we can change are some superficial behaviors – a good or bad streak before you revert back to your essential self, your essence.
Now I’m more confused and uncertain than when I started. I guess that’s just who I am.