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Opinion psychology

The Discovered Self

Kurt Cobain

Many thinkers including Kierkegaard, C.J Jung, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Rogers, and Plato have all written about the discovery of the self. To Kierkegaard, there was only one greater tragedy than failing to become oneself – it was succeeding in becoming something you were not. Or as Kurt Cobain famously and cogently said, “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not.”

Socrates thought people looked ridiculous when they claimed to know many things but had no knowledge of themselves. Plato said that the key to understanding human nature was to understand oneself.

At the end of his book, 21 Lessons of the 21st Century, Harari’s parting advice was not to gain encyclopedic knowledge about any given topic, but to meditate. In other words, to become deeply aware of oneself. The Buddhists would agree.

What is so profound about this sentiment that has been endlessly repeated throughout history? 

Every culture is an organized collection of individuals who agree on traditions and rules, and they will impose on each other behavioral guidelines for all aspects of life. Every society has its own unique values. And by living in such a society, the individual is under pressure to conform to these values if he is to be accepted within it. Societies may change over time, of course, but the relationship between the individual and society does not change. Individuals will always have to adhere to rules and accept that certain behaviors are better than others.

That’s why the self has always been compromised.

For the well-being of the collective, the autonomic self has been forced to relinquish its powers, it has been forced to mold itself into a socially acceptable persona. This loss of individuality is the tragedy that Kierkegaard warned about. The mother that is highly agreeable and determined to maintain peace in her household than express her real opinions is a manifestation of this persona, the son who is afraid of confronting his father about his true professional interests, the daughter that has a front as the logical intellectual to protect herself, and the father who acts as the only arbitrator of truth to protect his position on the hierarchy.

People have social goals, and these can hardly be achieved without preparing an appropriate and familiar cocktail that can be easily digested. But when this mode of behavior is practiced for long enough, the individual’s sense of himself becomes distorted. He believes that he is either one thing or another, that he either greatly esteems himself or thinks of himself as an undeserving fool, that he is either good or evil, that he is either selfish or caring.

A mask is a rigid caricature of a face – a mask is static, not dynamic, it has a clearly defined form and does not change. But a human face is constantly changing. Similarly, one’s own identity is constantly being shaped, one’s own opinions are always being revised.

But the full identification with the persona prevents the individual from embracing this reality. The masked man cannot reconcile himself with his dynamic nature for it is inconsistent with his efforts to seem like a fixed entity to others.

When you forget about your dual, duplicitous nature, you are not in harmony with yourself. You are constantly dissatisfied with your state of being. You can either accept what your reality is: a dynamic, ever-changing cacophony of conflicting emotional states, or you can ferociously rebel against the sides of your nature that are antithetical to your constructed persona.

Your self or authentic personal identity is not defined by what you plan to do in the future or what you have done in the past but can be found in the responses you have had to these events. A stockbroker who decides to leave the financial industry he once loved and become a priest is no longer a stock broker, but one cannot say that he never was. Similarly, the lawyer who hates his job is not a lawyer. The self cannot be imposed. You cannot decide to become a lawyer because it makes sense according to some socially manufactured framework that does pertain to your personal reality.

What defines your identity is how you responded while taking on such an identity. It is by observing your own actions, emotions, and thoughts that you gain a more accurate picture of yourself. But it is not a one-time event. You must be involved in a continual process of self-observation. If you want to know how you feel about a job, don’t sit there and think abstractly about the pros and cons of the profession. Make it a point to become aware of all mental activity taking place while performing this job. If you want to know you feel about a person, observe how you feel when they are around you.

Knowing thyself has aged well, perhaps because people have failed to do so and an old challenge is always welcome, or perhaps they have realized the benefits of doing so. The promise of the discovery of the self is fully realized human potential, it is the full acceptance of the human experience without self-imposed restrictions that have resulted form a distorted understanding of human nature. When you think that you ought to do something, then you have a distorted idea of human nature. When you accept that the answer to your question can be answered by another individual, you have a distorted idea of human nature.

There is no ought, but there is a self, there is a part of you that will give you feedback when asked, and it is within your power to take this lone, isolated voice more seriously than all other voices. Such a thing is difficult to do. It is painful to tear apart your old identity, it is painful to reject your past, it is painful to accept that your misguided or misinformed, but it is most painful to deny all of these things when they are true. The pain of denial is the most insidious form of pain.  

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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