Things fall apart: The myth of personal authenticity

For the first half of my life, I did not “know who I was,” but I very much believed that I should know. And so I tried on all sorts of identities — without knowing that I was doing this — longing for the peace I was sure would result from becoming rooted in my true self. This quest impacted my choice of fashion, musical tastes and geographical locations, and I also chose my area of study — philosophy — largely because of this compulsion toward self-discovery. My intellectual and aesthetic attraction over the years to all sorts of authors, poets, and artists has been largely in the service of my own personal self-discovery and maintenance project. And while the particular content and flavor of my various ideological and stylistic selves may have shifted along the way, rarely did I doubt the rightness and necessity of the quest itself.

It was quite a jolt then when I recognized that the best thing that ever happened to me was to have a boulder land smack dab in the center of the frozen pond of my preciously constructed, diligently maintained identity. Gradually, the whole translucent shell began to shudder and collapse, so irreparably that, by now, I have abandoned any notion of putting it back together again. The lovely surprise is that true peace began to well up only when I stopped trying to salvage and shore up up my crumbling, rickety identity structures. For me, as for so many other fortunate folks, there came a point at which maintaining the apparent integrity and security of being “me” was no longer worth the blood, sweat and tears.

Things fell apart.

Anyone reading this has probably already developed a critique of ego-based, consumer-driven, materialism. You have, most likely, moved past life as defined by the starving ghost of the physical world, that wraith whose insatiable hunger is frustrated by its pinhole mouth. But some of you will, as I do, still have some inclination toward spiritual materialism. Maybe you are still dogged by a vague sense of lack, driven to seek out yet one more teaching, another video, just one more workshop so that finally, finally you can “arrive.” You may even know, intellectually, that so long as one runs after peace and happiness, attempting to augment oneself, lasting serenity will remain ever out of reach. Peace and equanimity, like our clever but predictable shadows, outrun us when we chase after them.

Things must fall apart.

This is not to say (of course) that one’s life circumstances must collapse or burn away. You may or may not continue to live in the same house, do the same work, have the same friends, play pool, do yoga, read poetry, host cookouts in August. But the story of an essential self, the tale you have been telling yourself and the world over and over again, sometimes for many decades, of who you are, of what you need, of who has wronged you, of what you love and hate, all of that must dissolve if the true self at the bottom of the pond is to be recognized.

“Things fall apart” only with respect to the house-of-cards version of myself that I had been building up and refining and tending for years. Do you, too, sometimes feel like your persona is a pot you have been turning on an endlessly rotating wheel, a malleable vessel that you obsessively shape and refine and judge and perfect? From this striving point of view, is it even possible to imagine that you could ever be smart, deep, beautiful, secure, or spiritual enough to stop? Fortunately, when the wheel spins too fast for too long, the glop of clay decenters and becomes unwieldy. And when it flies across the room, one is left sitting nakedly, with no ornamentation or intellectualization, no identity project. That is, without a story of self to distract from self.

I get that, from a relative point of view, our psychological and personality-level identities matter. We are human beings for whom such narrative constructions have meaningful, sometimes momentous, consequences. But it is no accident that, in the West, powerful, flexible discourses of individual and collective uniqueness have been used to justify both the brutalities of capitalist exploitation and the moral progress of social liberation movements. Personal and social identity projects contain the seeds of both suffering and freedom, so some such stories are evidently more salubrious, justifiable, and desirable than others. Our identities are precious. And sometimes they are worth fighting for. But to attach ourselves to ever bigger and better stories of self in the service of spiritual realization is to climb onto a hamster’s wheel.

One consequence of my re-relation to self as I describe it here is that, although I sometimes still enjoy reading memoirs, I have mostly lost interest in telling stories about myself. And it’s this change, perhaps more than any other I’ve undergone, that has made it harder for me to continue life as usual. Have you ever noticed how much “normal” social engagement is based on exchanging the various narratives of who we have decided we are, including the attendant judgements, assessments, and speculations? I confess that sometimes I find myself slapping such narratives together simply to uphold my end of the conversational bargain. I love people, after all. In fact, I love them so much that my greatest wish for others— even as we exchange these stories of ourselves — is that a boulder might land in the center of their frozen pond. I long to join hands and celebrate the unexpected beauty of the fractal patterns as the cracks race outward across the ice.

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