This is the fifteenth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.

CHAPTER 9: A CULTURE OF DIGNITY(Part 2)

The Self: A Home for Identities

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best:

But man, proud man! Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep.

What the author points out here is that it is the opacity of our prideful egos that blinds us to our “essence,” our see-through identity. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare recognized that the human persona is really a cut-and-paste job that is porous, transparent, “glassy.” What better description of a model–those ephemeral, provisional, but vital constructs that so enhance our vision?

If at some point in our life we can’t conjure up a serviceable identity, an uncomfortable feeling comes over us. We feel we’re ceasing to exist in the eyes of others and even our own. We’re becoming invisible–a nobody.

This is ultimately why human beings need dignity, deserve dignity, and in the end, will see fit to grant it to one another. As Pascal noted, “Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature; but he is a thinking reed.” Selfhood is tenuous, fluid, and unstable. Identity has to be handled carefully, as a gardener tends his prize roses. “Attention must be paid,” insists Willie Loman’s wife in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As playwright David Mamet wrote in a tribute to Miller, “To find beauty in the sad, hope in the midst of loss, and dignity in failure is great poetic art.” To deny dignity to someone is to deprive the solitary, vulnerable self the sustenance it has need of to make its humble offering in the world and fulfill its existential duty.

Over the course of our lifetime, various identities form and collapse. Even though our current one may feel like “the real thing,” every identity eventually shows its age and begins casting about for a stage exit. In observing that “one man in his time plays many parts,” Shakespeare, like many an Eastern sage, saw that to be human is to inhabit a series of roles while at the same time being a member of the audience–a part of, yet simultaneously a witness to, “the human comedy.”

As we look back at our life, the stream of our former identities resembles a succession of guests in a hotel. We are no one of these transients but rather the hotel’s proprietor, affording each visitor a temporary haven. From our lofty eyrie,we recognize ourselves as a home for identities. Each of these evanescent selves deserves to be received, well treated, and when the time comes, bid farewell with dignity.

Growing up, my friends and I expected to be the same person for life, just as our fathers and mothers had been. But by the time I was fifty I could look back and identify several distinct personas that had taken up residence within and used me as a mouthpiece to make one or another case in the world. So could most of my friends. Initially we were embarrassed by this state of affairs, feeling it to be a sign of inconstancy and failure. Now I see metamorphosing from one identity to the next as a natural extension of the development from childhood to adolescence to early adulthood and beyond. The more flexible, forgiving attitude that results from a malleable self model turns out to be the perspective we need to maintain our dignity in adversity and accord it to others in theirs. If we can’t treat our current self with respect, what chance have we of doing so with anyone else?

Survival Tips for Dignitarians

To be human is not to know one’s self. The “I” that we confidently broadcast to the world is a fiction–a…container for the volatile unconscious elements that divide and confound us. In this sense, personal history and public history share the same dynamic principle: both are fables agreed upon. –John Lahr, theater critic

We don’t so much build our first persona as we recognize it emerging out of consciousness like the developing image in a Polaroid photograph. Usually during adolescence, without any conscious effort on our part, a crude but serviceable tripartite identity assembles itself. It consists of:

  • A sense of our place in the universe (traditionally referred to as our relationship to God)
  • The first inklings of how we might contribute to the world (our relationship to society)
  • Sources of recognition (our relationships with family, teachers, and friends who are serving as midwives to our nascent identity)

The principal task of adolescence is to solidify as much as possible this first persona to the point that it enables us to make our way in the world. It is only later, when this identity has dissolved and morphed into another, that we gain some distance from it and begin to see it as replaceable machinery rather than our one true self. With the view that we are model builders, and in the absence of rankist intimidation, comes the opportunity to assume a less anxious and more conscious role in the fabrication of our personas. The following sections discuss techniques that people have used for centuries to guide them in forging new identities, connecting the tools and process to dignitarian values.

Witnessing

There’s a part of us that watches our doings and overhears our thoughts–a neutral observer that monitors our experiences as if from the outside, witnessing what the Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard aptly called the “stages on life’s way.” This faculty stands apart from the rush of worldly life and simply takes note of what happens. The elderly will tell you that although their bodies and minds have changed, this “witness” hasn’t aged at all. Even in old age, it’s the same youthful, candid observer that it was when they first became aware of it as a child. At ninety, my father told me he felt the “one” looking out at the world through the “two holes in the fence” was the same one that had done so when he was a boy of five.

As the literary critic Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare drew attention to the witness by creating characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff who, in soliloquy, overhear themselves. It is this inner process that enables us to take stock of where we are and then steer a different course if we’re unsatisfied with what we find.

When the spectacle of life becomes intense, the witness often recedes into the background, but continues observing no matter how turbulent things become. This unobtrusive monitoring faculty is detached and nonjudgmental. The critical voice we sometimes hear in our head is not that of the witness. Blaming ourselves is rather the result of internalizing the rankist agenda of others who would put us down. In contrast, our witness is a “secret sharer” that does not condemn us no matter what we do or what others think of us. It plays an indispensable part in the creation and re-creation of our personas by chronicling with a disinterested eye everything that goes on in our home for identities.

The witness looks both inward and outward. There is no part of ourselves to which we feel closer. It’s a model builder’s closest ally. Some regard it as the soul.

Questing

Isidore  I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics, remarked: “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: “So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. “Izzy,’ she would say, “did you ask a good question today?’”

Learning to catch a good question on the fly, no matter how sophomoric it may seem, is a model builder’s lifeblood. Questions indicate the path to a new personal identity by suggesting ways in which we might contribute something of ourselves.

Most of our ancestors were fully occupied with just the feeding of their families. So long as we’re struggling to fulfill our basic needs, we can’t afford to pay attention to the questions within us. Suppressed, they lie dormant and are passed along from generation to generation.We make do with traditional doctrine and dogma until our survival is assured.

But once there is leisure, submerged questions surface into consciousness. They usually arise out of contradictions between ourselves and other people. The young unearth the questions their parents avoided and soon embark on their own search for answers.

The late writer Wallace Stegner said, “The guts of any significant fiction–or autobiography–is an anguished question.” Our inquiries generate our individuality. Even when we’re unaware of them, they shape our every move.

As a teenager, Einstein wondered what time the clock in the steeple of his hometown Ulm, Germany, would show if the trolley he was on were to race away from it at the speed of light. It seemed to him that if the trolley left at noon and moved in sync with the light that showed the hands of the clock straight up, he would just keep on seeing noon forever. But wouldn’t that mean that time had stopped? Thus was a question born, the pursuit of which would unlock some of the deepest mysteries of the universe.

In the places where we’re most alive we are questions, not answers. One has to listen carefully, again and again, to detect new ones, which often make their presence known in a whisper.

Every person is an original, each of us unprecedented. Even if our genes were cloned, our social environments would be distinct. This double uniqueness is further differentiated by the questions we generate, which are the source of our passions.

Taking our questions seriously,whether or not we are able to answer them, defines a personal quest that places our current identity on the line, exposing it to transformation. In a dignitarian society we would be able to do this without fear of humiliation or persecution.

In the film My Name Is Nobody, a young gunslinger who calls himself “Nobody” faces down a legendary old hand who has a reputation for being the “fastest gun in the West.” In their climactic showdown, Nobody ostensibly kills Jack Beauregard, played by Henry Fonda. Written on his gravestone we see,”Nobody was faster than Jack Beauregard.” While expressing the literal truth, this epitaph, via its twofold meaning, preserves the dignity of Beauregard, who, as it turns out, has actually faked his death and begun a new life on the Mississippi in partnership with the young man named Nobody.

In this same sense, nobody is holier than thou.

Who is this nobody? It is the tiny interior voice that is trying to draw your attention to a new question, usually one that challenges a habitual behavior or belief. No one is holier than thou and no piece of us has a stronger claim to holiness than the unpretentious little nobody within. The universe rarely yells at us, but it’s constantly whispering. If God has a voice, this is it.

Attempts to identify and express our unique selves are invariably fraught with self-doubt and suffering. Dislodging old beliefs and stale identities, thereby making way for new ones, is a crucial part of the process. This is often initiated by other peoples’ criticisms and provocations. If those criticisms are proffered in a nonrankist manner we are more likely to be able to avoid a defensive response and instead internalize all sides of the matter at hand. Once that happens, synthesis, and with it a new self model, are usually within reach.

The Knights of the Round Table formed their identities in pursuit of the holy grail. Questing lives, as Carolyn Heilbrun argued in her classic Writing a Woman’s Life, are now, at last, a real option for women as well as men. Today’s grail quests are apt to begin with a heartfelt question.

Identifying our questions and pursuing them wherever they take us–while respecting this same process in others–is the modern counterpart of chivalric adventure, and it’s no less heroic. The eternal search for human dignity finds no more evocative expression than the Arthurian quest for the holy grail.

Loving

According to Russian-born painter Marc Chagall, “In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” And German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Look back upon your life and ask: What up to now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by their sequence they will yield to you a basic law of your true self. Compare these objects and see how they form a ladder on which you have so far climbed up toward yourself.”

 In addition to imitatively absorbing elements of our personal identity from beloved individuals, both living and dead, our persona is constructed from bits and pieces of cherished books, movies, music, and art. It is often through them that the first inklings of weakness in a model are revealed and alternative approaches suggested. For example, sensibilities that first take root in a poet, a novelist, an artist, or a dancer may become commonplace decades later as his or her body of work is assimilated into the culture. In this way, art is often instrumental in establishing a new cultural consensus. American novelist Henry James pointed out, “Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions.”

Love is the polestar guiding us to these elements of identity,whether they manifest in people or in their creations. When we heed the call of passion we enter pell-mell into a learning process that provides the raw materials out of which we fashion our unique personas. Einstein believed love was a better teacher than duty. Keats said, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections.”

Acting on the basis of what or who we love always involves risk, but within that risk lies the opportunity for transformation. Often we are beckoned to change the outward forms of our lives, and this can frustrate the expectations of family, friends, or even ourselves. At certain transitional points, we may have several loves and move from predominant involvement with one to another.

If we follow the call of passion in our work, we often find ourselves alone. Personal passion can take us to places that others don’t value because results in these areas have yet to be incorporated into the group consensus. In matters close to our hearts we observe closely and take immense pains over details, whether they are poetic, athletic, culinary, aesthetic, or logical. Consequently, we tend to know more than others about the nooks and crannies of our own unique realm of concern long before we can give it coherent expression, let alone persuade anyone else of its significance. A high tolerance for “failure” and rejection is perhaps the single most important attribute required for success. But as societies become more dignitarian, failure is not seized upon as a cause for rejection and we are not as hampered in our process by fear of stigma.

If economic necessity forces us to work for others, we may nonetheless remain faithful to our passion, purposefully making time to pursue it in one way or another. There is a feeling of homecoming when, after a day spent on other activities earning a living, our attention returns to our special area of interest.

The Dutch philosopher Spinoza ground eyeglasses while he composed his treatises. T. S. Eliot wrote poems while working in a bank. Einstein was employed in a patent office during the time when he was revolutionizing physics. Countless men and women hold a day job while simultaneously pouring their creativity into an avocation or raising children. Often there is an option that can satisfy both our passion and our pocketbooks if we remain open to a solution that deviates from conventional pictures of success.

Sometimes work we seem to have been drawn into accidentally or by financial necessity turns out to be closer to our real concerns than were our fantasies, which are often shaped by beguiling stories of fame and fortune. The same problems turn up everywhere because they are unsolved everywhere.Hence, some version of the particular problem that defines our true task usually presents itself wherever we are. The outer forms of the problem may vary as we move from job to job, but when the issues within them bring a familiar excitement, it’s a sign that we’re getting close to the unresolved questions that generate our fervor and define our uniqueness.

No one can isolate for another exactly what he or she is concerned with. Advice-givers have passions of their own and may try to enlist others in their projects. Parents often push for pursuits that appear to offer security because they don’t want their children falling back on parental support.

Under pressure from families, advisers, or peers–especially when it is rankist–students may affect an interest in the prestigious or the fashionable and lose touch with their real passion. Gently exposing posturing and pretension–while taking care not to insult their dignity–can free them to attend to their own innate questions. There is a famous quote attributed to the Hasidic rabbi Zusya, “In the world to come I shall not be asked: “Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked: “Why were you not Zusya?’”

Seeing our own identities not so much as finished edifices but rather as works in progress propelled by our loves and our questions enables us to see other peoples’ identities in the same way. The result is that we don’t pigeonhole them, and this tends to induce reciprocal openness. Interactions become less like pitched battles and more like improvisational dances. Letting go of the idea of an immutable self and moving beyond fixed beliefs may be a little disconcerting at first, but it soon begins to feel invigorating and empowering. Establishing personal and social change as the norm is the body and soul of dignitarian culture.

A Foreseeable Challenge

In conclusion, here is a quick look at a development that at first glance might seem to put human dignity in extreme peril. (Those with a distaste for speculation are invited to skip it.)

Futurists are warning that by mid-century we will likely be confronted with an unprecedented threat to what it means to be human–the advent of sophisticated thinking machines.19 It’s one thing to use calculators that outperform us; it will be quite another to face appliances manifesting suprahuman intelligence. Picture a cute little gadget perched on your desk that, by any measure, is smarter than you are. We’ll probably program such machines not to be condescending, but the knowledge that robots have taken over many creative tasks will clearly require some getting used to.

A glimpse of how we’re apt to react to such a development is provided by looking at how we have responded to prior status demotions. Copernicus’s contention that the earth circled around the sun–removing us from center stage–caused an uproar that lasted for centuries. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which made us all descendants of apes, was initially scorned and continues to be rejected by some. If life is discovered in various stages of development on other planets, the effect will be to further undermine human claims to a central, unique role in the universe.

Through our previous humblings, however, people took some comfort in their presumed higher intelligence. How will it affect our identity if we’re pushed off that pedestal? Realizing that the functions of mind–the last bastion of our supposed superiority–can be replicated by machines is reminiscent of the medical discovery that the heart, long seen as the seat of the soul, was simply a pump made of muscle. We’ve rarely handled such blows to our pride with grace.

Possessed of truly Promethean powers, yet faced with man-made creations that outperform us at what we see as our special talents, the inhabitants of a dignitarian world will find virtue in humility. After a few final displays of vanity, we’ll probably make our peace with accepting the help of thinking machines much as parents reluctantly but ultimately accept advice from their grown offspring.

Smart machines with computation speeds that exceed currently available ones by a million-fold might well serve as the astronauts of the future, exploring worlds where our biochemistry is a handicap and theirs is an asset. The introduction of thinking machines would also provide a perfect opportunity for conducting the dignity impact studies on new uses of power discussed in chapter 2. And if proposals pass muster, we can further enlist the help of our silicon partners in projecting increasingly complex scenarios as we move forward.

Over time, what is most distinctive and precious about human beings could be preserved and incorporated into the machines that, with aid from our clever progeny, we may someday design to supersede us. Dignity will be challenged, yes–but expunged? Not by smart machines so long as we befriend them and make them our allies. If dignity is defeated, it will likely succumb at human hands in the way it has been most trampled upon in the past–through war.

[Robert W. Fuller is a former president of Oberlin College, and the author of Belonging: A Memoir and The Rowan Tree: A Novel, which explore the role of dignity in interpersonal and institutional relationships. The Rowan Tree is currently free on Kindle.]