In 1971 the Who’s Pete Townshend wrote the following lyrics:
‘Please don’t say that you know me
Cause I don’t even know myself.’
Known for his turbulent and often troubled life, Townshend’s angst and confusion reflect the difficult journey many of us face throughout our life due to a sense of confusion as to who we really are as individuals. For me, Townshend’s pithy lyrics beautifully capture the sense of personal transitoriness that defines our existence: What do I believe? Why am I capable of such selfishness as well as disinterested kindness? What is it that lies at the core of my being? In summing up the myriad dichotomies that face each individual, Nietzsche put it most succinctly in Thus Spoke Zarathustra when he wrote that life is the process of ‘becoming what one is.’ Kierkegaard too- that most tormented of existential philosophers- struggled with the idea of personal becoming. On the one hand, Kierkegaard could write that the most common form of despair is ‘not being who you are.’ On the other, he suggests that ‘what labels me negates me.’ These ideas exemplify the dilemma at hand: we strive to live in line with our values and beliefs, but at the same time our internal conflicts and drives appear to negate any possibility of a clear definition as to who we are as individuals.
For some, such talk is meaningless. One simply is who one is. Surely this is self-evident? How can one be something other than what one is? Perhaps such notions are just representations of philosophers playing their silly games? To such views, I express my unabashed jealousy. I wish I could live a black and white existence. To be truly sure of oneself from the beginning until the end is a luxury that-at least from my perspective- brings confidence and internal peace often borne of ignorance. This must surely make the living of life easier and more straight-forward. For many of us, however, the luxury of self-knowing remains elusive. It is not an impossible end, it just requires patient reflection and the ability to learn- a lifelong journey, if you will. It also presupposes that life- and individual actions undertaken within this life- are not to be fit into neat categories which determine whether a person is good or bad, evil or innocent.
Truly, there is nothing more frightening than to reflect back on one’s life and wonder if the part played by you was not, in fact, an actor in disguise. The horrible things you have done, the pain you have caused, the selfish decisions you have made…. has this all not been the dastardly work of an impostor who has claimed similarity to you but whose inner character is but a sinister shadow of who you really are? To feel such a way requires one to feel a sense of shock at the destructive potential we each harbor. It presupposes a degree of conflict amongst the various subconscious drives that compose the human heart. Certainly, this sense of dissociation tormented St. Augustine, who wrote that the first task in life is to be dissatisfied with oneself. The permanent sense of discontent and confusion about one’s own identity is not intended to keep us mired in guilt and shame, however. Known for his strong sense of sin and its personal consequences, Augustine also writes that the second task in life is to put up with the trials and temptations of this world that will be brought on by the change in your life and to persevere to the very end in the midst of these things.’ (3) The point, as I read it, is not to pretend that we are a perfect unified whole, but to instead recognize our internal dissonance and find a way to move forward in spite of it.
Where does this change Augustine speaks of come from? For Augustine, sin (understood here as chaos resulting from the conflict amongst competing internal drives) continued to be a condition plaguing the individual, but its potential to define the core of one’s being was rendered powerless by the redemptive work of Christ. What this means for me is that no matter however much I may struggle with temptation or selfishness, I know that these things do not ultimately define me, irrespective of the judgment of others. These traits may certainly have negative consequences in my life, but ultimately my self-understanding comes from being loved by God in spite of my failings.
1. Frederich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin, 1964) IV.1
2. Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is outlined in Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification and Awakening by Anti-Climacus (London: Penguin, 1989)
3. Saint Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 59, 5.