We aren’t ourselves, really. Over our lives, a persona is constructed around us. For some of us, that role fits us well, and for others less so. Sometimes the gender doesn’t match. Sometimes we don’t really want the things we’re supposed to want, or we do want the things we’re not supposed to. We understand ourselves from a distance, like characters in a play: Our brains incapable of understanding themselves, create shadow selves, simplified symbol selves, and then assume that the shadow represents its source.
It’s a reassuring assumption. The secret we avoid telling ourselves is that we’re never really who we think we are.
The secret is we’re never really anyone at all, at least not the way we think of a person. We are a bundle of impulses, unbounded desires and dreams, crammed into the shape of a person by way of that symbolic characterization. What I’m saying is that the way we understand ourselves is the same as the ways we understand each other, and in all cases is a gross oversimplification of the actual processes of consciousness.
It’s something we don’t like to think about. It means we know even less than we thought we did.
Anyway. Our identity is like a shell. It is constructed around us by people telling us who we are. Sometimes we are the person telling us who we are and sometimes it’s a parent or a teacher or a friend. If we’re lucky, they get it right, or close to right, and this segment they add on to our identity shell fits us. Just as often it isn’t. And sometimes that’s a problem.
I don’t like grapefruit. I could probably learn to like it. If I ate a few grapefruits I’d probably learn to appreciate them. There’s no reason, though. I kind of like having a food I don’t like. This is an extraneous bit of identity which I don’t need, but I hang onto anyway for novelty’s sake. I don’t mind because I don’t think it’s hurting me, but plenty of people hold these same self-conceptions which end up hurting themselves or others. They don’t like rap music, they don’t like romantic comedies, they don’t like surrealism: These become self-justifying, part of who they are. Even if they don’t have the emotional reaction to those things that should underlie their dislike, they continue to dislike for disliking’s sake, because that’s who they believe they are.
It’s not uncommon for me to catch myself disliking something out of duty, because I believe I shouldn’t like it. I suspect many of you have done the same. Who does that impulse serve? Does it maybe keep you away from something you might otherwise like?
It’s a lifetime of work, making an identity that actually fits. Our minds change shape over our lives, we outgrow certain identities, certain loves and hates and ideals, but sometimes we neglect to change that identity shell, that perception of who we are, and it constrains us, and it chafes us, and it imprisons us.
You never really know who you are. You have to keep asking.
As long as the heart beats a person is a work in progress.