When who to be is a question mark
20. Identity through past, present and future.
When trauma strikes, those afflicted are affected in different ways. Some can feel that their lives have been destroyed and develop chronic dependent conditions and other behaviours of resignation. Others may even have the good fortune to be strengthened in the aftermath, due to various factors such as available supports at the time, levels of resilience and stress-management skills, and obviously, the nature of the impact and all its consequences. Still others may experience themselves to be defined by what has happened and gain a new disturbing identity they can’t shake off. The excellent film, Fearless, explores how survivors of an aircrash work through their troubled emotions in the aftermath.
Yet efforts to accurately perceive the measure of self are common with or without a major antecedent. Despite centuries of philosophical speculations, from Plato through Freud to Gordon Allport, and abundant recent social science studies of identity and multi-disciplinary findings, experts remain divided about essential meanings, from an agreed definition to function, form, construction and stability. The extensive Wikipedia article on psychology of self shows just a sample of these. The perspective taken appears to reflect largely on where the enquirer is coming from.
The work by Ken Wilber to integrate theories about identity reaped his handy graphic (page 3 in this pdf article), with explanations, of the four quadrants of existence. Many people feel it is a useful and inclusive framework that does justice to all the different individual and collective aspects of ourselves, summarised as, intentional, behavioural, cultural and social.
A highly-esteemed book by William James on the teachings of Sri Ramana, Happiness And The Art Of Being, available in full online, ends with this advice:
“These concluding words, eṅgē-y-irundālum irukkalām, imply that in whatever place or circumstances we may be placed in our life, it is always possible for us just to be. If we always keep our mind subsided in our true and natural state of self-conscious being, no external circumstances can prevent us from remaining thus. Therefore, since we have no duty or responsibility other than just to be in our own self-conscious and blissful being, and since there is no higher happiness than simply to be thus, summā irukkalām – let us just be.”
Other nice meditations on just being include E.F. Schumacher’s, A Guide For The Perplexed, and Rebecca Solnit’s, A Field Guide To Getting Lost . They parallel the revered Buddhist qualities of signlessness, emptiness and aimlessness that can lead to enlightened wakefulness and liberation from suffering. Once these are attained, there is no need to hurry anywhere any more.
Bearing in mind how easy it is to stumble over semantics when getting to grips with such ineffable topics, spiritual traditions do tend to share the mostly insider joke that in the ultimate realm, ego identity is the primary hindrance to bliss consciousness. Once again, Thich Nhat Hanh articulates this view of the underlying reality of no-self in this video talk with introduction. Because the self changes so much even under ordinary pleasant conditions, clinging to too rigid a self-image stultifies the life force. There is self, its imputation, necessary to operate in the world, and under analysis, there is an absence of self, due to the inter-being of things, as the message to love your neighbour as yourself implies. Regardless of the ideology, both self and other in their precious impermanence are to be dignified with respect and care, so that love spreads.