Identity and self-expression; with some ideas from David Hume and Swami Vivekananda

All Writings, Individual, Self improvement, Society / Saturday, July 28th, 2018

The act of writing, as one does in one’s own journal or a personal diary, brings a person into a unique state of mind. It is the same state of mind as one has when one is talking to himself. These peculiar practices of writing to build a self-record and the talking to oneself are so unique to human beings. It would be hard to imagine one doing these things with any thought of sharing these with another. On the contrary, one might only wish to keep these practices, words, and states of mind entirely to oneself. In this preservation, there is the identity one has and what one holds dear. There are things privately cherished and not to be shared, and in that act of not sharing, there is the dignifying of one’s own self. For having shared and revealed, left to others to praise or criticize, there is a demeaning of what is otherwise most important to an individual.

The strangeness of trying to balance one’s individuality, the environment created by loneliness, the urge to share, the reluctance to trust others, the hint of curiosity of finding new things and the fear of losing oneself in the process are all simultaneously at work. Such is the world we are in. Of course, at the end of it all, there is the all-important question of identity.

Is the human identity a constant?

This question cannot be answered unless one understands what one is asking. And admittedly, the answer itself is then interpreted in accord with the desires and wishes of the readers, thereby imparting to it some of the reader’s own identity. However, it remains a question which is personal and always important.

There are parts to the identity of a person which that one forms in connection with others – the family, the community, the prevailing culture etc. Building up a familiarity over time gives a person a sense of belonging. The identity of a person fuses with the surrounding people and environment and the two continue to grow simultaneously. There is, however, the person who continues to be independent in thought and maintains a measure of separation from the rest. This person may do so consciously regarding many matters, but there are some traits each person is also born with which will continue to have an effect throughout one’s lifetime. So, when one speaks of being oneself or being true to one’s own self, there is an inner realization a person has of such an identity. Has one come to identify with something, or has one actually found the manifestation of oneself through the processes of thought and action, it may be quite difficult to say at times. There is something quite strange about examining oneself by one’s own thoughts, although it is far better to have expressed oneself and let the discovery continue. One can only hope to have found the activity one truly enjoys and the good fortune to pursue it. Many times, one does not have that chance. It is also true, one person learns more from chopping wood in the forest than another one does from sitting fifteen hours thinking in a chair made from that wood.

The identity apart from all the external influence

Of course, we realize that the development of the identity is connected with and influenced by the external influences. There is, however, a consciousness that has formed and is active toward all that is external. One only wishes that a hospitable and nurturing environment is found by the consciousness that is ready to become a part of the world, and yet preserve its identity. There is no guarantee this would happen, and an individual continues to form out of and in spite of his experiences. There is resistance, there is the compromise, there is a going along with, and a fighting against and in all that there is a living.

David Hume, when he was writing, Of the understanding of personal identity, leaning as he was, toward a materialist point-of-view:

But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time.

Then, he soon added:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

Reading his words is significant because he realized the existence of identity in the way of an uninterrupted existence, although one’s perceptions are always there as a lens of interpretation, and from there we are seeing our identity in a subjective way.

It is quite pointless to argue over a materialist or a spiritual point-of-view to build a picture of identity, but one can immediately recognize the inherent change in view when one does not ignore the spiritual aspect. Modern life has become so heavily leaned in favor of the physical aspects that it is now felt a redundancy to consider spiritual possibilities or only an additional confusion to an already difficult proposition of understanding the human being through the physical science of neurology. On the opposite end of the spectrum stands religion which is also dissatisfying in its claims, where made, of absolute, inerrant knowledge about the human being. There is, in fact, not one understanding as one finds. What one can acknowledge is the usefulness of these systems and their ideas in providing meaning to the human beings, a sense of identity, and also challenges coming forth from within those religious systems. Thus, the understandable gravitation toward ideologies that promote searching and experiencing as in Buddhism or Hinduism, as compared to a written code as in the Abrahamic teaching. The external influence of the environment created by these thought-and belief-systems has a very telling effect on the development of the individual. The question of belief always remains. And where there is identity, there is consequently belief in the realm of human affairs.

And yet, one is found asking questions about what is there before a unique consciousness acquires beliefs? What is it? Is it the soul that hasn’t yet had a chance to know what it should believe in accord to the world it finds itself in, or are there beliefs tied to that soul right from birth, or even before? These questions are old and we might ask them over and over again, not because we have only one answer at present. We have many answers, but the inquisitiveness remains. The existence of these questions should be the important thing. In attempts at self-discovery, we will always come across questions of identity, and then of the consciousness, of the soul. Capacities for the abstract and the arts, may not lead us to firm answers, but they do lead us to expressions. And in those expressions, we have answers that give us the insights, if not into the nature of all mankind, then most surely into the nature of one’s own self.

Freedom, self-expression, and guidelines for identity

Much depends upon our view of the individual and our willingness to develop this understanding that gives an opportunity for the identity to develop. Where in some places there is a repression of the identity for fear of great evils being unleashed due to hidden evils within each person, other views endorse the idea of freedom. And this is why it is quite a self-defeating exercise to formulate one general idea that can help to operate entire societies and cultures. If sin is considered the underlying mechanism affecting all of the human behavior, this will naturally lead to fears and suspicions regarding others. However, in an entirely different culture and way of thinking, the very concept of sin in this way is a detestable thought.

Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.

~ Swami Vivekananda.

It is striking to consider, how even messages of commandment and encouragement cannot distinguish themselves in accord with the prospective reader. The message is, as it is – an utterance from the belief of a writer or a speaker. One reader, at one time in his life or by his behavior during that time may require to be reminded of the possibility of sin. Another reader, already weighed down by guilt might require, not any reminder of the sin within him but of his being a child of God. And this where knowledge, information, and wisdom find a convergence through a skilled teacher. A message sent out into the wide, open earth does not have in itself the ability to suit itself to fulfill the need of the listener. And the listener may not have the discernment at the time to use the message in a way that proves beneficial. Is it the authority of the message that is more important, or is it the ultimate benefit to the hearer? These also become important questions in regard to identity.

There aren’t simple answers about freedom, self-expression and the guidelines for identity regarding human beings, seeing that such vast potential can rest within some individuals in specific ways, while in others those qualities manifest not in the same way and also not to the same extent. In considering all this, one sees the wisdom of honoring the identity existing at the time of birth within a person and also recognizing how to guide that identity to express itself with freedom and meaning. It is with this positive intention that each person and family and community can start to build layers of meaning. The rest is all just a matter of hope toward the Giver of life, to our Creator.