“Be yourself”, they say. “Stay true to who you are.”
Well, who is that, exactly? Who is this fabled ‘self’ that I’m supposed to be? How do I ‘be myself’? How do I know who I am?
There Is No Self
I’m about as far from religious as one can be, but I think the teachings of Buddhism can help to grant us a fair bit of insight into this topic. In Buddhism, there is the belief that there is no such thing as the ‘self’; that change is the essence of being, and all living things are wholly impermanent with no such thing as a ‘self’ within them.
Now, I’m not here to crap on your belief of an eternal soul and all that, but I think the Buddhists might be on to something here with respect to the nature of the self.
As a person, you are a product of an innumerable number of factors. Your experiences, upbringing, genetics, everything about you comes together to create this version of you, and as you go through life interacting with the world around you, the things that make you you change as well.
Your actions are not determined by who you are. Who you are is determined by your actions.
Or, as everyone’s favourite sore-throat-voiced Batman says, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
The Illusion of Consciousness
Biologist and DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick famously said, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
Crick may have helped to revolutionize our understanding of genetics, but his take on human life as being nothing more than a smattering of neural activity might be a little reductive.
All of our emotions, memories, and thoughts, both conscious and subconscious, are the result of electrical signals coursing through the neurons of our brains. However, this interpretation of human consciousness fails to consider the external, experiential element of our interactions with the world around us.
Our brains may be set to respond to things in certain ways, but our neurons cannot control what happens to us externally and how our experiences shape every aspect of our being. As living, thinking entities, we have the agency to influence our own minds and create our own identities, rather than be enslaved to them, through the decisions we make and the actions we perform.
As a result of our myriad mental processes, we are fed with an illusion of self, a sort of meta-cognition. We think of ourselves as existing within our minds, passengers in our own bodies. We develop a notion of a certain inner self; a core at the centre of our very being. A version of ourselves that cannot be tarnished, shaped, corrupted, or otherwise changed by the ravages of external influence.
That is all, of course, a bunch of bullshit.
On Creating that which does not exist
So if the self does not exist, and therefore cannot be ‘found’, how then do we create it?
We create ourselves through the things we do and the decisions we make. We craft a constantly changing, amorphous identity that is never the same one day to the next, and is never more or less real for that change.
The more relevant takeway from the whole “be yourself” narrative is not to stubbornly refuse change without exception, but to simply be honest with ourselves. To do what we truly believe we should, and make sure that the actions which define us are truly reflective of the thoughts that motivate them, not the whims and sensibilities of others.