This book is about you.
You probably imagine that your life is a story and you are the character this story is about. I doubt that most of you can seriously imagine your life in any other way. You naturally relate to people and things around you. You make decisions about your life. You have feelings about all kinds of things. You want to be happy. You don’t want to suffer. You’d like to manage your life in such a way that it is filled with meaning, importance, happiness, and beauty.
You have also got fears and hopes. Hopes that things will work out well for you and those you love. Fears that they will not. You make decisions based on these hopes and fears trying to influence the people and things around you so that your story goes well.
At the center of all of this is you. Whatever happens around you, the one true thing that you don’t seriously doubt that you are in the story.
Rene Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher uttered the one line of philosophy that nearly everyone seems to get “I think therefore I am”.
He believed this truth to be the solid foundation upon which the rest of the world could be known and he tried to justify his knowledge of the world based on this one incontrovertible assertion. Whatever else you know or don’t know about Descartes, you probably share this idea with him. There is a you and you are the vital concern of its self.
You and the self
At the heart of the you you know is what we usually call the self. The self is the third person perspective on the you you know and can’t imagine being without. You live the story from the first person. We see the self from the third person. This book is about your self, my self, the self itself. You will notice me breaking up a lot of the self words throughout the book to add emphasis to the self because in the English language we are always talking about the self.
You are regularly given advice about your self. A lot of this advice comes from your friends, your teachers, your parents and others who care about you or at least have ideas they would like to share. Think about how often you hear these phrases about your self:
“be true to your self” or “to your self be true”
“believe in your self”
“be your self”
This advice is supposed to also be simple and obvious to all. You are supposed to know your self and the admonition of the advice is to only do things in alignment with that self that you are.
When we are offered this advice, as individuals or as a group we usually nod in agreement and the specific application of the admonition is left up to the self to follow through. Surely the self must know how to apply this advice because how could someone not know their own self?
In my experience this is kind of a social game we play with each other to encourage each other, but it doesn’t really come to much. There is a lot more strangeness to this self-advice than we wish to publicly admit.
“I was not my self”
After someone does something that they later regret it is common to hear them say “I was not my self”.
What this means of course is that they have an idea of who or what their self is, an established pattern by which this self should or does behave, and that this one incident or a series of incidences are not in accordance with that self or their established pattern of behavior.
When we say this of our self, we are usually expressing regret, shame or embarrassment. Sometimes when we say it of others they we are thinking that they have broken with the pattern of behavior we know them selves to be. Sometimes we say it of others because we know that what they’ve done is exactly how they normally behave, but they don’t know their own self well enough, or they are dishonest with others about who or what their self really is.
Despite all of the admonitions about your self you may quickly realize that actually knowing this self as a singular entity is more complicated than the admonitions suggest. Many people in fact recognize that even though they know themselves to be one you or one self, there are many selves within that one self that are experienced and known.
The self that others know
We all know that we carry around in our minds ideas about who the other selves are that inhabit our own stories. These selves have identities that we have constructed either through direct interaction or stories about these other selves. We also know that others possess these ideas about our selves, that they have in their minds ideas about who we are, how we behave, what we believe and how we feel.
We also know that there is disagreement between how we see our selves and how others see our selves. I might think myself honest, trustworthy, responsible, loyal and good, while others may see me as duplicitous, irresponsible, disloyal and evil.
The part of my self that is out there for public view, subject to the judgments of others we often call our reputation. We understand that this is a reduced copy of our self, knowing our self to be more complex, more nuanced, deeper and more profound than our reputation, but hopefully somewhat in agreement with it.
Each of us naturally believes that we know our self better than anyone else. We live with our self in our waking and even our dreaming moments. We know our secrets. We know our hopes, our dreams, our fears. No one else could possibly know our own self the way we do. Or so we think.
Even though we think we know our own self better than anyone else could, we have doubts about each other’s capacity to know their own selves.
We recognize that each of us have what we call bias that distorts our view of our own self.
We recognize that our bias towards our own self is usually slanted in favor of our self. Many of us think highly of our own self, more highly than others think of us. While we think we know our own self better than anyone else, we imagine our self to be the exception to that rule. We imagine that we can see others more clearly than they can see their self. We imagine we know their self more truly than they know their self because of their bias. What a strange thing this is.
The First Impression and the Intimate Stranger
To make matters worse, this dynamic impacts us all unevenly. It would be nice if we could say that public knowledge of our self increased simply with additional information about that self but that isn’t true.
We all know what a first impression is. It is that tiny image of the other’s self that we create in our minds when we first encounter that other self either in person or by reputation. We instantly form an impression of that person and we all know that this impression endures and shapes any subsequent information regarding that person.
Let’s imagine we have met someone new, and we have formed that first impression probably based on how they look, what they are wearing, what they are doing when we first laid eyes on them, or perhaps on a shaped telling of their reputation told to us by someone else. The more we get to know that person the first impression is either confirmed, challenged, or nuanced. The experience we have with that person the more the deeper our knowledge of their self becomes for us. We feel like we are getting to know them better and better.
Again, we would imagine that this knowledge would simply compound and become broader and deeper and higher and truer, and that person’s thoughts, words and behaviors would become more and more predictable to us, but it isn’t quite that simple.
The more we get to know that person, the more we begin to realize that although our image of that person has gotten more and more accurate and detailed over time, we also begin to discover how much we don’t know about this person. We begin to realize that this other person is in fact a person, which means that their self is more multi-faceted, more nuanced, more complicated, more unpredictable, more free, more wild than our mental image of that person could ever be. They are alive, living apart from the image we have constructed of their self. We actually begin to know them AS a self, like our own self.
The True Self
Once we begin to admit that our own self is complicated, and that we inhabit this story with other selves which are equally complicated and mysterious, then we begin to desire simplicity, clarity and certainty. We know that there are selves, and that they are complicated and challenging to know, but we also insist that there must, beneath all of this confusion be a true self, a unified self, a self which is knowable, unchangeable (more on this word later) and definite. Beneath all of this there must be a definite me, and a definite you.
All of the “self” admonitions in fact appeal to this true self.
“To your self be true.”
“Believe in your self.”
“Be your self.”
There must somehow be one self, beneath all of the confusion, that both exists and is somehow knowable. This quest for this one self has energized religions, philosophies, quests, and pilgrimages throughout human history.
It is asserted and assumed that knowledge of this true self is worth all the sacrifice, all of the suffering, all of the deprivation that men and women have willingly endured for its attainment. There are rumors of those who have attained knowledge of it, and mastery of it, and millions have devoted themselves at one level or another to follow in their footsteps.
This book is about you, and me and the selves that we are and the quest to find, to know, to become, and to be that true self forever.