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Monday, October 10, 2011

The Unknown Self

The human being- as an abstract- is an intriguing creation no matter what its origin or prime mover. The behavioral, scientific, and mystical elements that combine to create or inspire a myriad of personalities remain mysterious despite generations of scientists intent on parsing the "self" into understandable elements.  Sociology is the study of how we interact with one another- a science that depends on categories of human behavior- which in turn depend on giving up individuality in favor of generalizations.  As a selfish human, I have traditionally refused to accept that I was so easily categorized and therefore understood. Generalizations lead to stereotypes, misunderstandings, and prejudice. I have, however, recently overcome my aversion in preference to overwhelming curiosity, but the more sociology I read, the more I understand why Sociology 101 upset me so much in 1998 (and still makes me bristle with injured pride). At the time, I was convinced that the study of human beings by human beings was doomed to failure, and could not even qualify as science. 

I have often stood in the street wondering about my impact on strangers- about how I am seen by others and how I change lives one way or another- how, in fact, I influence other lives by my very presence, whether I will it or not. I found in my own imagination an assurance that no one can possibly see me as I truly am due to the infinite number of faces and personae I have chosen and been assigned over the years- let alone my own unique combination of DNA.

We are all (at least in this country) convinced that we are inherently and magically different from everyone else. There seems to be no choice. Either:  "the world…was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance, and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But…[if other selves were illusion]…then [we] would be surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling [we have]" -Ian McEwan, Atonement.

Are we what we think and feel or what we say and do? All that another person can know about us are the external elements- what we say and what we do- but how many of those things are manufactured to achieve certain results? Part of our living in society has to do with our ability to pretend, to fit in, to do what we are expected to do, rather than the actions of our hearts. How many times have you responded to "How are you?" honestly? But that does not change the internal chaos by labeling it as "fine". Which truth is truer? The words, or the emotional experience that remains unshared?

Can we be wrong about our images of ourselves? Of course we can- it would be too painful to see ourselves truly day in and day out- to face the flaws that plague us. To flip that around, can we possibly be right about ourselves?  T.S. Eliot said, "Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree: you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say "this we know." "  The same is true of a self. We may never be able to put our finger on the definition of a self- it is only the combination of impressions left on others.

If you follow the logic, then I cannot know myself, nor can I truly know you. We are separated from everyone else by a screen- each of us simultaneously the hero of our own drama, the sidekick in someone's comedy, the villain in a tragedy, and an extra in millions of stories. My fascination with God is in part a recognition that only something that transcends these views of us can possibly know the many and varied aspects we each project into the world, and the (theoretical) synthesis that is a total person.

Human beings are fascinating individually- with each twist and turn of the consciousness creating another aspect that makes a personality unique. We are an infinite combination of our experiences and thoughts, brought together in temporary and flawed perspectives. One might say this study of individual humans falls into psychology, perhaps, but if we begin to categorize, generalize, and study trends, we may end up with more generalizations and prejudices, but do we also have the possibility of true and overarching understanding at the level of a transcendent being? Can we as a race transcend our perspectives, share our camera angles, and see a total person?


  1. I don't think we could handle seeing a total person. I think there is too much to take in. Even if we could SEE the totality, the information would then be corrupted by our own prejudices. If any of my blend of bs here is true, it would lead into why man cannot fully understand God, as he is not even up to the task of seeing others or even himself truly.

  2. The complication of being unable to see each other clearly is that you are required to trust each other. If only I could be a behavioral analyst (with the BAU?) and no one would be able to lie to me...