When you stare into the mirror and look at what is reflected, who do you see? Sometimes, I do not recognise myself in that reflection. A sense of unease crawls up the back of my spine. I do not know who I am. We all do not know who we are. We are conscious, yet, as Sigmund Freud writes, we are also reflections of the unconscious. The unconscious strikes when we are most vulnerable, revealing parts of ourselves that we do not realise. It is in times of crisis that a man sees himself for who he is.
There is a story we tell ourselves, a sort of personal fiction. We play the role of a ‘mother’, a ‘colleague’, a ‘friend’, like actors putting on a mask, stepping neatly into prescribed societal roles. We take on the customs, the behaviours, the patterns expected of us, constantly affirmed by the others. Playing multiple roles at once, transitioning from one role to the next, the “us” emerges from this kaleidoscope of identities. A profound sense of unease surrounds us whenever we ever contemplate the possibility of abandoning the roles we adopted. So, we continue, acting as we are expected, from the day we are born till the day we die, stepping from one role to the next without pause. Recognise that all of it is fiction. An actor should not become an act. You are not born into any fixed role in society, you become who you are in society.
The spread of social media reinforces this fiction we are trapped in. Judgement no longer comes from those around us, it now comes from people around the world. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, the constant judgement passed on our daily interactions with social media drags us ever deeper into the fiction we constructed, our every action subconsciously judged by how others would think. Would they like this post? Am I going to be judged for wearing this outfit? Fretting over every portrayal of ourselves we put online, we construct a panopticon, as Foucault writes, in our minds.
There is a desire, appearing more than ever before, to find our ‘true’ self, in the form of self-help books and motivational speeches appearing dime a dozen in our bookstores and online. There is tension in the way we seek to both conform to the fiction dictated to us by society and our desire to be self-affirming. We want to be both social and individual, trying to assert some form of self-identity while maintaining unity with the herd. Foucault’s quote, in this context, tells us that this tension does not exist. The individual does not exist. There is no point in knowing who “I am”. There is nothing to know. What exists, however, is change, or “someone else that you were not in the beginning”. You are never a being, because you are always becoming. There is nothing about you that remains constant. Rather than trying to pin down who you are in this instance, a more fruitful endeavour would be to embrace the inevitable change that would define you in the future.
Some would reject such an outlandish claim. What about God? Doesn’t he exist? What about values? About character? There are aspects of ourselves that, from our perspective, seems to be immutable qualities of our being. I see myself as brave, as kind, as righteous. Why can’t that define who I am? Herein lies the problem. There is no reason why our perspective on who we are ought to be prioritised over other perspectives on our being. Certain perceptions of our being may be incommensurable with the rest of the world. There are often moments where we are the ones out of touch with ourselves, deceived by our mind. The drug addict does not think of his addiction as an addiction. The narcissist does not think of himself as narcissistic. There is no reason why we are infallible in our ability to perceive our true selves. We are as prone to errors as everyone else.
Consider then, that everyone carries his or her unique perspective on you, each differing from others. They all claim to espouse who ‘you’ are, some contradictory to others. To some, you may be considered trustworthy. To others, a liar. Both of these properties cannot simultaneously exist within you. There is no reason why you should actively discredit one viewpoint over the other. Remember, your judgement is as prone to failure as the judgement of others. Using your judgement to judge the judgement of others cannot give you certainty on who you are.
What lies beneath that contradiction? Nothing. They are all correct and all wrong, at the same time. Who you are differs based on who you are interacting with. The immutable quality we call “character” and “value” is just as subjective as anything else about us. Our attempts at trying to understand who “I am” is futile. There could be dozens, even hundreds of versions of you that exist in the minds of others, each claiming to be who you are. Attempting to conform to all these versions is impossible.
Religion, with its claims of the afterlife and the immortal soul, attempts to fix this problem by ascribing us to the divine. The existence of God, who created you and the world, must mean that there is an immortal quality to my existence. Therefore, I need to understand who I am to understand God, or fulfil some predestined purpose I have in this world. Similar to claims made by religion, some forms of teleology also make claims to the purpose of your existence. Such ideas can often be grouped under the banner of essentialism, where essence is seen to precede existence.
Problematically, there are dozens of religions and philosophical theories in the world, each having different concepts on what your immortal soul is. They cannot be all correct at the same time. Believing in one necessitates the rejection of all other theories. The problem arises here. There can only be one true form of a soul. Casting yourself into one of these theories, to some extent, is similar to believing in a preconceived fiction that has already been constructed for us. You may believe that your fiction is true, but such a belief is not universally held by everyone. There is only axiomatic faith for you to believe in. Again, you may be wholly involved in the fiction, but to what extent is your belief represented in the faith the true “you”? While you may believe that you are a true Christian, even within the fiction of Christianity, a Protestant is decidedly not a Catholic. You can never be sure if your true self is that which you place your faith in.
However, there is nothing to be feared, only celebrated. If there is truly nothing that defines ‘you’ as who you are, you are free to be whoever you want to be. You are liberated from the chains that hold you to where you are in life. Nothing matters, it only matters when you decide to make it matter. You are free to pursue your life project, do whatever it is you desire, instead of wasting your time working for another person’s life project, slaving away for his desires. Simone De Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, terms these individuals as the sub-man. Paralysed by the choices offered to them by the sheer nothingness, they retreat to the familiar fiction they have lived in for most of their lives, subsuming themselves into the projects of other people. The only thing you should believe in, the one truth about yourself that is certain, is the uncertainty of your true self. You are never tied to an identity, a fiction, but rather the creator of an ever-changing fiction that should be your existence.
This does not mean that you immediately abandon the fiction you have in your life. You can still live in your fiction and play the roles you are currently playing. What changed, however, is the recognition that you are not simply a character, but an actor. As an actor, you have the liberty to change your role as it suits the scene. You can always attempt another role if the current one does not suit you. There is a subtle difference here. While on the outset, your life may remain the same, it opens you up to choices you would not have thought exist. What is once immutable in your existence is now malleable.
In totality, accepting change as the only constant, as Foucault suggests, because encourages you to act with the future in mind. There is no meaning in loitering in the present, wallowing in the choices you made. Each mistake simply exists as a part of the change, never set in stone. Life becomes but a journey. Never satisfied, Foucault encourages us to keep moving, to free ourselves from the fiction we trap ourselves in during the present.