1. a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action
“What is closer to me than me myself?”
I have been a ‘self’ now for more than 35 years. I’m not entirely sure when I transitioned from being a self to really ‘knowing myself’, but I would guess it was around the age of 14. I switched schools after my mum and dad got new jobs in a different area of Suffolk and, at first, me and my older sister were adamant we didn’t want to move. I was circling the drain a bit at that point in my life – I’d just spent my first year in upper school after four happy and comfortable years in middle school and it wasn’t going well. I’d never tried particularly hard at school, but I always seemed to get away with a lack of effort and focus.
I was in school plays, I played for the football team, I had good friends and I was doing relatively okay with schoolwork, even though I never gave it my all. This trend continued all the way up to university – when the wonderful philosophy I started encountering in cultural studies lit a fire in me; suddenly I was inspired by academia and I began to work pretty hard on my essays. I cannot vouch enough for the importance of actually enjoying what you study. I know it’s not always possible, but if you find something you like, run with it, folks.
Anyway, back to Year Nine – I moved up to upper school at the age of 13 and I was suddenly a very small fish in a big pond. This new thrown state of existence completely derailed me. I just couldn’t handle the transition at all – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that. Old, long-standing friendships began to grow stale, I started to muck around in all my lessons and soon I wasn’t actually learning anything. I felt rudderless – lost; I really think that if I hadn’t been forced to switch schools, my life would’ve turned out a lot differently, and not in a positive way. But, fortunately, my younger sister led the way by changing schools first (to be at the same place my mum was now teaching) and my older sister and I had trial days at a new place – I was moving into Year 10 and she was just starting sixth form.
I think we both must’ve immediately realised how much nicer the new school was, because we completely abandoned what had previously been quite an intense battle with our parents to stay put. I might add at this point that they were incredibly accommodating in trying to cater for our rather uncompromising needs. They even tried to buy a house in a village near the motorway so we could stay at that school, even though it would’ve meant a ludicrously long drive to work every day for both of them. In the end, that house move fell through (and I’m glad it did), but I will always appreciate the selflessness of my parents for doing that – it’s definitely the sort of example I try to follow in the way I now look after my son.
Clearly my sister and I were just anxious and scared of the unknown; contingency can be terrifying – and so can school. I actually have fond memories of looking forward to a fresh start in what seemed like a good school and I’m so glad we made the move – I am still close with a lot of good friends from those days and it meant we moved to a really nice area which was a pleasure to grow up in. It was around the time of that move that I began to realise I didn’t need all the things I thought I did to be happy. I guess you just become complacent based on what you know – it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and there’s not a great deal you can do about it as a kid, as you don’t have the option to travel or meet lots of new people with new ideas, opinions and experiences.
It took moving to this completely new environment to make me realise that I actually knew who I was – and what made me happy. I was no longer relying on the stability of familiarity – in this instance, it had actually bred contempt. As someone who has written in this series about the importance of home and homeliness, this might seem like something of a contradiction. But sometimes it’s important to take oneself out of one’s comfort zone; it helps us to grow. You can make a home anywhere you feel comfortable – but you shouldn’t allow yourself to fester in misery simply because you’re afraid of the unknown or ‘what might be’.
Sometimes you have to take a risk, mix things up, and experience something totally new to develop yourself. And this is one of the important things to remember about one’s sense of self – it is not fixed. It is fluid. Perhaps at our core, we’re always the same type of person with the same true identity, values and beliefs, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that we aren’t capable of change, too. I feel like I’ve really known myself for some 20 years now, but I can’t say that I’m the same person now that I was 20 years ago. And that’s good – because it means we can grow. Tomorrow is a new day, and with it comes another chance to improve one’s self – to be better.
What is a self?
So how do I see a ‘self’ then? Well, I think that Heidegger’s Dasein captures a key aspect of it pretty coherently – a self is a being that is capable of thinking about the nature of its being. Once you realise that you are a separate entity in being itself, this world of other beings and things within it, your sense of self starts to take shape. You recognise yourself as an ‘I’ or a ‘me’. You begin to accept that Sartrean existential responsibility for your choices and actions; you assume your freedom.
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan captures the idea of becoming a self beautifully in his ‘mirror stage’ of childhood development. Lacan suggests that when infants begin to recognise themselves in their reflection as a separate entity from their mothers, they enter the symbolic realm of signs and language and such; the become their own being in the world. Suddenly the selfhood they believed they shared with their primary caregiver is shattered. From there onwards we experience a relentless, hopeless yearning to return to this state of completion, which is only realised with the inertia of death and the end of our desires; desires which can never be fulfilled.
Now, I should state here that ideas connected to the sense of self I’ve just discussed imply a level of awareness, understanding and education that comes with age, experience and learning. One can only expect to comprehend the notion of selfhood when they actually have the intellectual tools with which to begin such an inquiry. And yet, a baby that dies in infancy might not recognise itself as a self, but it still was a self; my father has dementia and is no longer able to understand himself as a self, but he still is a self. He’s not the person he was once in one sense, and yet, while he’s alive, he will always be that person in another. So there is clearly a distinction here between being a self and knowing one’s self. Just because a human being may not be able appreciate their sense of self must never be allowed to devalue their rights as a human being.
Personality, character and essence
We are all unique and special (or perhaps not!) in our own particular and peculiar (or not!) ways. Whether or not you believe that human beings have an essence or soul is something I’ll go on to explore – but I think it’s safe to suggest that each individual has a personality and character which tells the story of who they are. Our sense of self is built on our values, our beliefs, our history, our tastes and our preferences. But where does our ‘type of self’ emanate from? Is it all a matter of how our lives, the world around us and others have helped to shape us – or are there aspects of our sense of self which are more primordial? Is our sense of self dictated and influenced entirely by what happens to us in our own individual journeys or are there elements of our being and character that come from within us? Do we have this ‘soul’ or essence which almost precedes existence? Are we beings of nature or nurture?
This is a great topic to debate, and I’d love to know your views below. My feeling is that we all have a true self, which is encapsulated in something I call Genunity. If you aren’t familiar with the concept you can read more about it here. But it’s basically the essence of each person – and it’s built on their kind, compassionate instincts. I believe we are all endowed with this inner voice, which stems from a compulsion to do good, be kind and demonstrate our love for each other – and loving sentiments generally. Some people are able to show more of their Genuinity than others, but I believe it’s there in all of us. And I believe it’s critical that we aim to discover our true selves and tap into that Niceness as much as possible. I think it’s vital that we accept who we are, try to love ourselves for what we are, and then try to improve on those aspects of ourselves that we don’t like so much and want to change.
I’ve written quite extensively on the importance of knowing and accepting our true selves, as well as why I believe we should be comfortable with our own tastes and choices. Here are two blogs with Taoist and existentialist themes which investigate these notions in more detail:
Personally, I quite like the idea of us having a soul or an essence. I know these kind of mythical and mysterious concepts aren’t for everyone, but there’s something quite poetic and beautiful about beings having a dynamic ‘spirit’ enclosed within their corporeal shelters. Because I really do believe there are aspects of each human being that exist and develop in a way which are not a result of life experiences – there are aspects of our being which transcend; they are a priori.
I think there are personality traits, behaviours and ways of being that are just a part of our ‘definite character’. At the risk of suggesting they’re almost ‘absolute determinates’, it is my opinion that there are certain things about us that are (again, almost) destined to come into being. I don’t know if I love sport because my dad did, or acting and singing because my mum did, but there are certainly traits of their characters which have continued in the way I operate, and I don’t believe it’s purely based on how they raised me. I feel there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s in my genes. Maybe it’s in my soul. It’s not a set pathway, but there are developments in our sense of self that I believe we are unable to avoid.
The selfish self
We all act selfishly sometimes – and by continuing along the theme of whether that’s something we learned or is always a part of us, we move neatly on to Darwinism and ideas concerning the self and the survival of the fittest. It is quite clear that human beings have competitive instincts; we yearn to procreate and we have a will to survive. Sometimes, this leads to us acting selfishly. Well, actually, quite a lot, I think. And I do believe it’s an entirely natural and understandable thing to do. You can’t have the word selfish without the word self!
But it’s important that we allow our compassion and our education to guide us whenever possible. I truly do not believe that selfish acts ever brought anyone contentment. Be forthright, yes. Be bold. Be decisive. And be who you are. But also listen to the views of others. Help other people. Connect with them. And open up to them. It is a part of our instinctual being to look out for number one. But we must realise that the Heideggerian notion of care is a part of our Dasein (human being). We have a will to Niceness. We have the propensity for kindness and compassion every bit as much as we have a desire to put ourselves first. Try to put the collective first whenever you can. It might leave you vulnerable, but there is strength too in openness. There is courage in kindness and there is much to be gained by lowering one’s guard and allowing one’s self to be subsumed by the Other. The tricky thing is to ensure that you are always wary of the pitfalls of the ‘they’.
Falling prey and inauthenticity
In Being and Time, Heidegger writes extensively on the they, publicness and inauthenticity. Without wanting to gloss over quite a complex series of ideas, one can briefly outline its essence – we are all individuals, but we also operate in this world of others. And sometimes it is just too easy, safe and comfortable to lose ourselves in those others. Life can be hard – and the decisions we have to make can be weighty and difficult. So sometimes it’s easier to pass the buck and allow the group to help us make our decisions – or, rather, make them for us. This mode of behaviour is something that is also brought to light by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism – like Heidegger, he sees this deferment of our responsibility to the others as acting ‘inauthentically’.
Giving up one’s freedom, and thus losing one’s sense of self, is all too easy in the clutches of the they. It’s how aberrations like Nazism, which on paper seem so detestable and unappealing, have any chance of becoming a reality. Sometimes it’s just easier to give up our authenticity, and our sense of self, and immerse ourselves in the collective. But aberrations like Nazism also show to us how essential it is that we assume our freedom, responsibility and sense of self, and not allow others to take away our right to make those choices for ourselves. I received this comment on a blog post I wrote about confirmation bias and the struggles of writing impartially:
Firstly, let me say that writing as some kind of ‘self-argument’ is a wonderful idea – and I really appreciated that input. But I particularly enjoyed this comment for the latter point, where Marsha suggests that we are “so heavily influenced by others” that she feels as if “sometimes our minds are not our own”. I think Marsha has another great point here – clearly, from infancy and the impact of our parents, grandparents, siblings and other caregivers onwards, we are heavily influenced by our experiences with the other people in our lives. As someone with a deep love for Freud and his determinism, I will always make a case for the significant impact infancy and our primary caregivers have on shaping our futures.
Anyway, these critical outside influences continue to help shape us throughout school, into our teens and beyond. Let’s face it – it never stops. We might feel like we truly know ourselves at some point (like I did when I moved schools at 14), but I don’t for a second believe that the other people in my life don’t continue to have an impact in shaping who I am. And so I believe there is a lot to be said for the they and their impact on our sense of self. If we are what we eat, then we are also ‘who we meet’. Just be sure to retain your sense of self as much as possible; being subsumed by the they is an inevitability, but never allow the they to take away your freedom. Always be who you are and never forget that it is you alone who has the responsibility to direct your life as you see fit.
Back to the future
Another theme I wanted to touch on briefly within the sphere of selfhood is the future of the self. Like everything I’ve raised in this post, one could write many books on this area alone if they wished to, but I’ll just quickly address this topic if I may. It feels as if we might be in something of a golden age for championing the importance of the self (perhaps the best age since the days of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato). Mental health awareness is growing year by year and educators are doing more than ever to help young people attempt to truly be themselves and aim to be what they want to be.
Now, social mobility in this country alone is a long way from what is should be – but the prospects of a six year old child now are certainly a lot better than, say, the Industrial Era, where many of them would actually have been at work in some horrible factory. On a similar note, much has been done to stop abhorrent activities such as slavery; the very essence of robbing someone of their selfhood. And yet, two popular TV dramas on BBC One (Shetland and Baptiste) are currently running storylines based on modern-day people trafficking and sex trade slavery. So it is naive to think this isn’t still happening and it needs to be addressed. Taking away another’s sense of self is not acceptable – no-one has the right to do this and we must do all we can to protect the basic living rights of our fellow human beings.
But even though our civilisation has made great strides in protecting, preserving and championing the self, I can’t help feeling paranoid and uneasy about the future of selfhood – particularly in relation to the rapid advent and proliferation of new technologies. The world is a very different place to the one of the Industrial Revolution. Technology dominates and permeates our lives in a way beyond what we might ever have imagined. The internet, communications technology and social media are having a significant impact on our identities and the way we interact with each other – often in not particularly positive ways. And perhaps I am being overly paranoid here, but the looming advent of artificial intelligence is surely loaded with pitfalls for the future self. I just cannot see how humankind ‘creating’ a form of intelligence which potentially exceeds their own can ever be a good thing; when did ‘playing god’ ever end well?
Potentiality of being
Speaking of ‘potentiality’ and human beings as ‘creators’, I also wanted to say something more positive about the way I believe we are ‘makers of being and selves’ as ‘active originators’ of our experience (to borrow a phrase from the great Immanuel Kant). The term potentiality of being is also borrowed (from Heidegger), but I wish to use it in a different manner. My idea is that we have the capacity to give being, and a kind of selfhood, to things, even if we never physically encounter them. We have an ability to imagine and create being which matters to us using our imagination, spirit and, most importantly, love.
I have an example to cite based on my own personal experience as a parent – but I believe the idea expands much wider with a little consideration. At our 20-week growth scan, when my son Sammy was in utero, we were told that my wife Pru had low PAPP-A in her blood results and was in the high-risk category for chromosomal abnormalities (125-1 chance). This meant that Sammy could potentially have had Down’s, Edward’s or Patau’s Syndrome; the latter two of which essentially meant he would’ve died shortly after childbirth, if he made it through to full term. We were offered a harmony test, which is basically a safer way to check the likelihood of these scenarios, and found out two weeks later that there was a million to one chance of him developing one of these conditions. Our sense of relief was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Having a child with Down’s Syndrome must be a massive commitment, but there are so many wonderful people in the world with that condition and attitudes have changed so much for the better. I can’t say how we would’ve coped as a couple with a Down’s child, but I admire and respect the parents who are raising their children with the condition and I hope they can continue to have increasingly more fulfilled and inclusive lives. Anyway, back to Sammy, and the prospect of him dying straight after birth was just appalling; unbearable. I know people who have been through these experiences and the grief and heartache they had to go through is beyond words. They have my enduring love and respect for their strength to come through those experiences.
But what we shared is the way this being, still a foetus essentially in our case, which we’d never met, which only really existed as a potentiality, felt like something I would’ve given my life for. In those two weeks while we waited for the results of Sammy’s PAPPA-A test, I felt as if I had a hole in my heart. I couldn’t think about anything else and continually told myself that I would do anything to hear good news.
To us, even in those early days, Sammy was a self. He was a being. And I can now fully understand how those parents who sadly never get to meet their children mourn them as if they had. We have the power to create being; we can dream or imagine, or just simply feel, an idea of being so powerful that its reality becomes undeniable to us. And so perhaps another aspect of selfhood is that it doesn’t even require corporeality – perhaps, all you need is love?
What gives me the right?
I’d like to end this post by illuminating a piece of myself and my Being & Niceness mission that I often think about – what gives me the right to actually write a ‘moralistic’ blog? What qualifies me to give people advice, support and my opinion generally on matters of moral fibre? I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life regarding various moral issues, and I continue to make mistakes every day. My judgement isn’t perfect, my behaviour is often flawed and there’s no way I’m right about everything I write. I try to be the best person I can be every day, but my efforts often go awry and I spend a lot of time questioning my acts, aiming to improve myself and hoping that I can do better. So what qualifies me to write a blog about being nicer?
Well, the way I see it, the more mistakes you’ve made, and the more willing you are to reflect on and try to learn from them, the better qualified you are (perhaps) to help people from repeating similar errors and misdemeanours. Experience should thus be your ally in improving your future self – and hopefully inform the kind and respectful way you treat your fellow human beings. Receiving advice from a relatively ‘flawless’ person can of course be helpful, too – but it can only be helpful to a point; it is because I am imperfect and flawed that I have something to offer those who need a bit of guidance or support every now and again. Just like all the things I’m proud of and happy about myself, and all the good things I’ve ever done, my mistakes are a part of who I am. My flaws are tied inextricably to my being. And, what’s more, I can use them to help me be better at being me.
I think the key thing here is to ’know yourself’ as best you can – accept who you are, trust who you are and, if you can, try to love who you are. You’re never going to like everything about yourself, but that’s okay – we are all in a constant state of flux and should thus be open to change. We can improve ourselves in many different ways every single day; we can learn new things, grow as people and develop ourselves so that we are kinder, more appreciative and more helpful to our fellow beings. This is, I think, what qualifies me to write this blog – I accept that I am flawed, but I am willing to improve; in fact, I’m not just willing to be a better self, I am determined to be one.