Who are you when nobody is looking? It’s one of those memetic questions you find circulating in lazy fashion in the web, but it has a point. Perhaps it has more relevance these days as so many have retreated from public life to working from home after one of the longest periods of collective social isolation in recent history.
Speaking for myself, it feels that the world has changed forever — the workday commute in my car ( a curious mobile aquarium halfway between isolation behind the wheel and participation in traffic ) mostly canceled, the world out there reduced to grocery runs, interactions with my family and the occasional social visit with friends.
It’s not that I live in an extended home aquarium, but it certainly feels like the world has shrunk or is a little more airless since March of 2020. That’s not to say that my life was a busy social whirl pre-Covid, but office life had its own momentum and the occasional work trip offered respite from the monotony of office days. Now, there are endless hours in the day at home for introspection prompting the identity question.
So, who really are you?
Look at your hands, those two faithful servants interacting constantly with the external world. We equate familiarity with knowing things ‘like the back of your hand’ but could you really describe the contours of your hands accurately, the map of veins so unique to you? Probably not. We’re not wired or conditioned for that level of scrupulous attention.
What of your body generally? Flesh and blood certainly — that warm pulsing interface with the world, the one that delights in touch, shivers in the cold, basks in warmth, stretches, bulges, sags and withers with age. But what of the bones, viscera, the brain and the spiderweb of nerves emanating from it like fungal myceliae? — our hidden physical sensory selves. Does your sense of self truly encompass all the boundaries of your body except perhaps when you are sick with fever, nauseated, hungry, horny, in love or if something is physically broken, like a bone.
I once experienced a good example of mind body disconnectedness when I tripped on my front stoop and broke a bone in my lower leg, the one that stabilizes the ankle. When I stood up, my left foot was at a funny angle. I quickly corrected it with my hand (ouch) but noticed it no longer supported my upper body and I could feel the two halves of the broken bone grating against each other.
Later that day at the hospital I was wheeled into the operating theatre late at night having been given an epidural while they plated and reconnected the bone. I recall having fallen asleep only to wake up to find my left leg suspended in the air by a nurse while the orthopedic surgeon wielded a power tool. Observing a leg which I knew to be my own but to which I had no sensory connection was memorably weird.
So, our bodies are very much part of our identity, but it is contingent i.e., it is subject to changes that are not wished for and is as reliable as it is, ultimately fails us in one way or another. We may revel in our youth and physical strength, but the fragility of the body is revealed in accidents and the passing of time. But, whether we like it or not, the bone cage is the only carriage we have to take us through life before ultimate dissolution.
What of your sense of self?
Select a picture of yourself as a child at an age where you are verbal, self-aware, but still dependent on the care of your parents. Preferably a picture where you are looking directly at the camera, aware of the theatre of taking pictures and its function as a record. It’s easier if you have a physical document, like a photograph, even better if it is itself visibly worn or faded.
Is it you? Obviously yes, but do you recognize your present self in that two dimensional image? Reflecting my own experience in that experiment, I can say that I do not. The distance between my present self and the child recorded in history is too great and yet, I can contextualize the image in my personal history. But it’s more of a place marker in time than an anchor point in my psyche. Certainly, I think there are recognizable aspects to my personality which grew from this child and which still have value to me, but they are barely perceptible beneath the years and endless other retrofits to my present sense of self.
I was reminded of the poem, My Heart Leaps Up by William Wordsworth, which is such an apt and wise description of what ties us to our former child selves — natural piety, which can be interpreted as a sense of wonder inspired by nature and all its manifestations. I’ve explored the topic in earlier blogs, and I am convinced once and again of the restorative effect of nature and how it connects us to our physical and spiritual dimensions and oneness with what is. Children at an early age are delightful for that very reason — they revel in their senses and in their unself-conscious way are in a state of near perpetual wonder about the world — something adults all too easily forget as they go about their daily duties and other obligations.
If you aren’t familiar with the poem, let me share it with you here:
My Heart Leaps Up
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety
What of your job?
Do you identify with what you do for a living? That’s an important question since the deal continues to be a socio-economic pact between our adult selves, private companies and state bodies that can last forty plus years. It could be a very fulfilling time, but it doesn’t answer to your identity when you retire from your job essentially unemployed with less than twenty short years to live. Perhaps that is the reason why retirement is such a killer for so many.
As the pandemic subsides, there is an interesting social phenomenon going on called ‘the great resignation’ where even people who signed up for the whole package with enthusiasm are now stepping off the wheel early — realigning themselves with values that equate with a saner version of the work life balance.
Maybe it’s an idea that’s time has come. Already in 2018 an anthropologist called David Graeber called into question a lot of what constitutes human activity in his book Bullshit Jobs, a Theory in which he outlines the multitude of jobs that exist, particularly in the private sector without offering its workers any real sense of why they exist. As Graeber himself points out accurately that while these jobs are well compensated, their pointlessness grates at their users and creates a “profound psychological violence”.
The list of job titles is long, but they include receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists, survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists and most everyone in middle management.
I think the conclusion of profound psychological violence is not an understatement because everyone in this short ride on this planet would hope to have done something meaningful with their lives. Instead, to validate their adult existence, they are threatened with poverty and social exclusion if they do not participate in a system that truly only rewards a small, sainted number at the top of the food chain.
Graeber proposes the antidote of a universal basic income but that’s a little premature, given present circumstances but not dissimilar in its prematurity as abandoning the carbon economy asap — the same one that fuels the whole shit show that’s setting the world on fire and threatening to take us all with it.
It’s the elephant in the room that most of what constitutes our identity in this life is built on shifting sands. Without being provocative, ask yourself whether your job contributes anything meaningful to the world and don’t forget to be brutally honest in the reply.
This brings me to the ontological part of my search for identity and for this, I would like to quote Viktor E. Frankl, the Austrian neurologist who, seared by his experiences as a prisoner in four German death camps, wrote a seminal work in 46 called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
There can be no doubting the sincerity of his meditations on meaning — on many occasions he is drawn to the same conclusion that Nietzsche made that ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how’ and that suffering is central to meaning. Frankl writes:
‘When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.’
The point here is of course different times, different manners. Modern life is designed to insulate us against suffering and drown us in illusion. Soon we will all live in the metaverse paid for by advertisers and miners of our personal data. In Frankl’s universe you are alone to suffer but in the metaverse, Zuckerberg and all his friends will be there to cheer you on in your suffering. Having said that, there may yet be a realist backlash to too much illusion but by the same token, its allure is undeniable.
There is an interesting scene in one of my favourite films, the Matrix where one of the rebels headed by Morpheus willingly trades his reality in a cramped submarine eating goop for the price of readmission to the Matrix and a return to comfortable but complete illusion. I think many people could identify with his love of illusion, if not his dirty underhand scheming.
Illusion equates with denial
You could argue that Frankl, when he concludes that one of the greatest antidotes to suffering is freedom of choice, only survived because he could deny the horror of his existence. The love of his wife, and a tremulous sense of hope were the only illusory things (except luck and the will to survive) that separated him from destruction. And of course, he survived not only to tell the tale, his identity largely intact but also with a renewed purpose to his life.
Widening the focus from man to planet, I was drawn to a quote by astrophysicist and TV/Radio personality, Dr Brian Cox who was himself pondering on identity in relation to this planet’s place in the galaxy. For him, meaning exists through us to confer meaning to everything else -that we are sufficiently complex carbon based lifeforms to be not only intelligent but to project that intelligence outwards as well as inwards.
Cox writes, ‘If you accept that meaning is something that emerges from sufficiently complex biological machines, then the only place those machines might exist, is here; then it’s correct to say that if this planet weren’t here, we’d live in a meaningless galaxy. That’s different to life. There’s a difference between life and intelligent life.’
The logic in this argument is founded on the premise that we are the only intelligent and sufficiently complex biological machine to occupy this galaxy. It feels to me something like putting this earth at the center of our planetary system instead of the sun. Of course, without further documentary proof to contradict him, we are alone in this galaxy — just as much a terrifying thought as if we do share our galaxy with other intelligent beings.
What would such beings make of our existence, if not perceived as a threat to their own? Would they confer a higher value to us because we search for identity and meaning as a species or would they herd us like anonymous cattle into pens because our concept of identity and meaning differed radically from their own?
What would humans do in such an encounter? Frankl lived on a planet where two such species co-existed — mensch and unmensch, decent human beings and monsters, members of which category could be found on both sides of the electrified fence. One tried to erase the identity of the other but failed in their brutality. Resistance to suffering, giving it meaning and surviving was the defiance demonstrated by people like Frankl in a system where the odds of doing so were statistically 28 to one against you.
Hope is perhaps the only anchor we have against the reality of suffering and the threat of erasure. Illusory as it is, it can motivate us when all identity has been stripped away and places a stakeholder in a future we may yet be able to craft. Much of what constitutes identity, I would argue, is built upon an invisible framework of morality that upholds the highest qualities of being human. It also acts as an antidote to nihilism and apathy — two of the deadliest states that can consume us when nobody is looking. It’s encoded in humans just as surely as the DNA in our cells and indeed it may even be encoded in our DNA as well.
In the ongoing existential struggle for identity as a species on a dying planet, it is perhaps comforting to know that we are born with all the prerequisites for not only surviving but also doing the right thing as individuals and groups. Time is short but action plus hope over nihilism and despair may yet save us and this planet and give true meaning to our lives upon it.