I wish you first a sense of theater.
Only those who know illusion
And love it will go far.
Otherwise, we spend our lives in confusion
About what to say and do about who we really are.
This poem by W. H. Auden presents an essential quandary in our quest for identity. If you find yourself wondering about “who I really am” then you have already opened a can of worms and have an identity crisis in the offing. And please note that an “identity crisis” is often a luxury, one that millions of people cannot afford, being the urgency of the day-to-day grind of trying to make a living to provide for themselves and their family But for those of you who have this luxury, I’m going to share some thoughts about the nature of identity.
The notion that “I am” assumes a whole lot. When I think about who “I am”, I am practicing selective attention as the question brings to mind only memories that are consistent with presuppositions about myself that I have been permitted and find myself comfortable with. Everything else has been excluded. But the “everything else” is still there and always beckons in the unconscious, coming to us in fears, anxieties, projections, and dreams, good and bad. Addressing an identity crisis is to realize that we have drawn the boundaries of our existence too narrowly and that the “crisis” we are now feeling merely is an opportunity to broaden these boundaries. It is to realize that our identity….the one that I’m presenting here as a false self, even as a charade in some sense…is very necessary and is not to be totally discarded. It is to realize merely that it is only part of the picture, only the surface of our real identity and for that identity to have meaning we must allow some of its excluded context to surface and be integrated into our sense of self. That “false self”, or “ego”, is very important. The problem lies only in our insistence that it be the whole of ourselves. Failure to recognize this is to find o living a very shallow life.
Let me illustrate with a snippet from another Auden poem in which he notes how that most of us “drive through life in the closed cab of occupation.” By this he meant that a person often, if not usually, sees the world through a template which is often best characterized by his occupation. Thus, a physician sees people through a medical model, an educator sees people as children needing to learn, a clinician (such as myself) sees people with the cold detachment of a diagnostic manual. But, Auden’s point was not merely about “occupations” but about a template, an ego structure through which all of us see the world, be it “occupational” or otherwise. This ego structure is our identity, our “false self” or persona, which always needs to be enlarged. And when this “enlargement” takes place, it does not invalidate the template…usually. The template usually serves a useful purpose. But we need to see the world through broader terms than we are wont to do when totally subservient to the template that with which we are so familiar and comfortable that we can’t even see it and are actually averse to seeing. (Emily Dickinson noted, “The mind too near itself to see itself distinctly.)
Let me illustrate with Mitt Romney. I think Romney was, and is, an intelligent, good human being. He had many qualities which could have made him a good President. But his worldview, his “template”, got in his way and posed some real problems in his campaign, best illustrated in the surreptitiously taped 47 percent speech to wealthy donors. His template demonstrated an extreme rigidity which often left him appearing very awkward and socially maladroit so that he often missed the nuances of personal and public interactions. For, Romney is a “corporate” person, a “corporate” mogul and persons of this cut do have a place in our culture, be that good or bad. He sees the world through the eyes of a corporate mogul and was not able to give this viewpoint pause on occasion and approach the public in more personal terms. It is not that he was “bad”. It is just that he was Mitt Romney and that “Mitt Romney” was, and is, a “corporate mogul.”
(An equally valid point is the “literarylew” is merely “literarylew” and sees the world through the template that comes across through his blog. Those who know me personally also see how clearly that “literarylew” is part and parcel of who I am, it is my identity, and yes, it really gets tiresome on occasion, or at least as annoying as hell!)