In today's article, we'll examine the human struggle to find out who we are. In a world that demands us to fit in, to join the machine of society, it is perhaps the greatest of human achievements to be of our own design. Perhaps we never will.
From our earliest days, we are told to follow a rule — a staple advisory for successful life and work. “Be yourself”, they say. “Don’t try to be someone you’re not”.
As children, our parents and carers discourage us from playing certain roles. They encourage us to adopt more desirable ones that fit in with the design of our social group. They buy us trucks and dolls and guns, plastic kitchens and superhero outfits. We watch TV shows and visit the movies. We mix with other kids who are sculpted the same as us. These things comprise the force that sculpts our identity.
Ever-increasing circles of society mould us into mini-others. The adults, who appear from our naive position to know better than us, set the rules of the game and they decide in large part, who it is we should be.
But beneath these outer layers of personal identity, there is something subtle, quiet, and unidentifiable. Although we sometimes sense it, we can’t quite put our finger on it. And despite the pervasive nature of the surface level self, it exists, waiting for us to uncover it.
To do so means undoing years of conditioning towards the ideological self. But for individual creative expression, we must embark on the journey. We have no choice if we are to break the mould, bring about innovation and create beautiful things.
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The ideological self is everywhere and pervasive in the unwritten rules of society. It varies from culture to culture, but no matter where you live, a version exists in everyone to varying degrees. In sub-cultures and smaller groups, there are ever refined versions of it.
Take the Internet, for example; it is full to the brim with well-intended purveyors of happiness and success. They peddle an idea of the perfect human, and many of us buy into it, starved by the need to belong to something, anything. Their apparent motivation is to help you, but maybe they are trying to help themselves.
Peer group pressures are another source of the drive towards the ideological self. It is especially prominent on social media platforms where the young are encouraged by bronzed, botoxed people to strive for perfection. In that pursuit, they perhaps paradoxically, become further lost.
All of this serves only to take us further away from our individuality and closer towards sameness. It’s perfect for those who would exercise control, but for individual creative expression, it is detrimental.
We all wear a mask to some degree. We are all hiding something, sacrificing an aspect of ourselves for the sake of social inclusion and acceptance. We do this because underneath surface-level thought is the narrative that says it’s safe on the inside — on the outside, it’s dangerous. We are discouraged from going it alone, so most of us don’t. And so we never find out who we are.
It seems there is something within us that wants to belong, yet there is the parallel need for independent creative expression, albeit buried deep. So we experience conflict, one that every human being feels to varying degrees. But perhaps it’s felt more so by the artist, writer, performer or musician. The muse calls, yet the world calls too.
So who gets control? Who does the making? Are we making by default in line with demands of society, or are we making form a deeper, more personal place?
I’m not certain. Perhaps it’s both, and there’s no way to separate them.
Because when I say, “I am…” I declare what stands me apart from everyone else. But much of what I proclaim about myself is claimed by others also. Aspects of our self-identity are shared with others in society. So when I declare; “I am an artist”, I am ascribing a schema or an idea to myself which others also apply to themselves.
So do I create myself, or does society create me?
One thing is sure; the self is in constant flux. In a single moment, there is infinite change. Just as the seasons, the days and the hours change, everything, including the self, changes.
Examine your interactions with people, for example. You’ll find you are a different person when you are with your spouse than when you are with your friends. You are different when you are alone with your father or your mother, or with them both at once. If you have children, watch how you are with your youngest child versus your oldest child. There is a different version of you each time.
So taking into account the indisputable fact that the self is ever-changing, the idea that you must “be yourself” is completely untenable. To “be yourself” implies that you should be a constant, unchanging thing, remaining largely the same, impervious to the relentless influences of your environment and other people.
But of course, that’s not the case.
Society says that as a character in a book or a movie, your personality must remain the same. This is what people expect, both of themselves and others, and it demonstrates the underlying flawed premise ingrained in the human psyche that you can “be yourself”.
There is something there, something other than what I refer to as me. But I, Larry Maguire, can’t know it as me. My ego-personality is inescapable. That other thing animates me, I (my ego) cannot animate myself.
So when I say I made this, I didn’t make it — something else did. I had a big part in it, but I’m sure I didn’t do it all.
As I consider the things I do and make daily, it seems that the ideological self is there — I can’t escape it. The creative self is there too, and the creative thing that goes on is a too-and-from between them both.
Whatever I am I find it’s indefinable — I’ll never get there, I’ll never reach it. If there is a self in me apart from this dichotomous exchange, its only job is to decide who has the loudest voice.