This is the second post in the series Why Everything You Know about Your “Self” Is Wrong. The series explores how our understanding of selfhood affects our sense of individuality, our interpersonal relationships, and our politics.
Are all our identities merely roles we play on stage?
In the first post in this series, we disentangled the notion of selfhood from the body, the mind, and the witness. Another common mistake is to identify a current identity as our “real” self. With age, most people realize that they are not the face they present to the world, not even the superposition of the various identities they’ve assumed over the course of their lifetime.
By my late thirties, I had accumulated enough personal history to see that I had presented several quite different Bobs to the world. Principal among my serial identities were student, teacher, and educator. Alongside these occupational personas were the familial ones of son, husband, and father. As Shakespeare famously noted:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts …
Like many an Eastern sage, Shakespeare saw that we assume a series of parts while at the same time watching over ourselves as if we’re a member of the audience. That is, we both live our lives and, at the same time, witness our selves doing so. We don’t stop there: we even witness ourselves witnessing.
We know that our current persona will eventually give way to another. In contrast, the self ages little, perhaps because it partakes of the detached agelessness of the witness.
Distinct identities are strung together on the thread of memory, all of them provisional and perishable. No less fascinating than the birth, life, and death of our bodies are the births, lives, and deaths of these makeshift, transient identities. Reincarnation of the body is arguable; metamorphosis of identity is not.
The witness’s detachment facilitates the letting go of elements of identity in response to changing circumstances. As we age, the feeling that life is a battle is gradually replaced with the sense that it’s a game played with a shifting set of allies and opponents who, upon closer examination, are unmasked as collaborators. Without opposition, we might never notice the partiality and blind spots inherent in our unique vantage point.
The more flexible, forgiving attitude that results when we see our self as a home for transient identities turns out to be the perspective we need to maintain our dignity in adversity and accord it to others in theirs. Former antagonists—which may include colleagues, spouses, and parents—come to be seen as essential participants in our development, and we in theirs.
To keep an identity in working order, we continually emend and burnish it, principally by telling and retelling our story to ourselves and anyone who’ll listen. Occasionally, our narrative is revised in a top to bottom reformulation that in science would be called a paradigm shift. Though most incremental changes are too small and gradual to be noticed over months or even years, they add up, and suddenly, often in conjunction with a change in job, health, or relationship, we may come to see ourselves quite differently, revise our grand narrative, and present a new face to the world. Whole professions—therapy, coaching, counseling—have grown up to help people weather such identity crises.
It is tempting to think of the self as simply a home for the identities we adopt over our lifetime, but on reflection, this, too, falls short. Our self is also the source of the identities that sally forth as our proxies. That is, we experience the self as more than a retirement home for former identities; it’s also the laboratory in which they’re minted, tested, and from which they step onto the stage. One can think of the self as a crucible for identity formation.
Before examining this process, we consider two more candidates for the mantle of selfhood: the soul and pure consciousness.
Am I My Soul?