"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Answer To “Who Am I?” - Secrets Not Identity

Secrets come in many forms – husbands’ cinq-a-septs, off-shore accounts, cash in the safe, anger, resentment, flight, tax forms – but these are common and expected.  Intimate secrets – poorly articulated, private, and never expressed - are what most define us and answer the existential question, “Who am I?”

However much we may be shaped by society and culture; no matter how our behavior conforms to accepted norms and standards or strikes a particular, unique balance within them, our existential validation comes from these secrets.  While they may be common by category – parental resentment, religion, bullying, sexual inadequacy – they are ours alone. 

I am what I do not tell. 

Partners in the most intimate, confiding and trusting relationships never fully expose themselves for fear of losing authority, respect, and positioning.  Full disclosure has never been part of the contract.
All marriages are contractual regardless of legality.  Men and women agree to certain terms and conditions of behavior, some of which are remediable, others not.  Within this contractual context, much is withheld or kept in reserve.  Like any legal arrangement, it can be disallowed, annulled, or dissolved.  The gender wars are no different from geopolitical ones.  Information is shared to advantage; withheld when not.

This is all common, predictable, and expected.  While many sentiments and experiences are shared, they are done so with calculation.  New, untested information can disrupt the balance, can raise more questions than provide answers, and is better left unsaid.

Many layers beneath, however, are the existential secrets – the ones which define us; which are us.
We live in confessional times.  One’s sexuality, cancers, painful family deaths, childhood traumas, emotional problems, and dependencies are no longer private issues.  Sharing is an anodyne and a bonding agent.  Getting it off our chest or out from under serves both the individual and the public good.  Sharing personal intimacy is a way of confronting mistrust.  It is an essential factor in progressive reform.  The world is at war because of suspicion and lack of understanding.

Yet such confession, getting as it does close to our private, secret rooms, is dangerous. If everything is in the public domain, what is left to the individual?

Nietzsche believed that the expression of will is the only validation of the individual.  Without it, one becomes an indistinguishable member of the herd, trampling about with no direction or purpose.  With it, one rides above the herd, a Superman not super-human but essentially human.  In a meaningless life, he said, the expression of will is the only thing of identifying value.

There are many Nietzschean heroes in literature – Shakespeare’s Iago, Goneril, Regan, Dionyza, Tamora, and Cleopatra; Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel; Strindberg’s Laura – but their amoral overreaching, validating and heroic though it may be –is exceptional.  For most validation must come from elsewhere.

Image result for images diana rigg as hedda gabler

Literature is equally filled with moral heroes who take a principled stance for good and against evil.  In these tales a man’s worth does not come from an amoral expression of will but a demonstration of moral principle.  It is far better to be ‘a good person’ than it is to conquer. 

These moralistic tales, however, do not jibe with history.  Good and evil are always subsumed within a far more practical context. Empires, caliphates, and nations may have used moral pretext for their territorial ambitions, but the reasons were all geopolitical and economic.

If Hedda Gabler, Iago, and Edmund are only dramatic symbols of an impossibly ideal expression of pure will and ambition; and if morality is no more than a temporal, relative concept of little importance within the context of history; then what is left?

Jesus said, “I am” eight times in the Gospel of John; and in so doing validated himself, his mission, and his divinity.
John 6: 35, 48  I am the bread of life
John 8: 12, 9:5 I am the light of the world
John 8: 58  Before Abraham was, I am
John 10:9  I am the door
John 10:11  I am the good shepherd
John 11:25  I am the resurrection and the life
John 14:6  I am the way, the truth, and the life
John 15:1  I am the true vine 
Image result for images jesus medieval paintings

His message of personal validation, however, was restricted to himself. While Jesus felt the need to specify who he was, , no such individualization was possible for the humanity he had come to save.  Only by believing in him, submitting to his will, and obeying his commands, could the faithful have eternal salvation.  Continued focus on individualism was arrogant, ignorant, and senseless.

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”; but that too was limited to epistemology.  As intellectually complex as it was, it was too simplistic and far too removed from individual experience to be of any use in understanding individualism. 

Image result for images descartes

Nabakov looked at the ‘I am’ question in temporal terms.  The present exists only in milliseconds.  The future is only possible and not even probable.  Only the past exists, and only if one retains, relives, and experiences the past through memory can one exist.  ‘I am’ = ‘I was’.

Image result for images nabokov

Yet this too skirts the issue.  Such a memorist explanation of being is no more satisfying than the Nietzschean or the moralist; for it avoids essence – that particular, inarticulate collection of personal fears, expectations, frustrations, hostility, and ambition that no one knows.  By acknowledging it, we have our closest look at human nature.  If such nature is aggressive, territorial, and self-protective, then we must be so also.  No matter how much we would like to believe in a continuing human evolution and a gradual, progressive reformulation of our nature, if we admit to our secrets we cannot.

The sharing, confessional nature of identity politics, self-esteem and self-worth may satisfy liberal sentiments of social evolution and progress; but it serves only to deny introspection, spiritual revelation, and true and final validation.

John Donne wrote:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
Yet every man is an island.  Focusing more on larger groups of which we are a part and assuming a greater value in so doing, ignores human nature, and the nature of individualization.

Image result for images john donne

Tolstoy described the pain and existential moment of the death of Ivan Ilyich in the novella of that name.  Ivan, as he nears his death, still consumed about questions of worth and value but only in terms of others, finally realizes that we all die alone.  We go to our graves equally, universally, and and alone with no consideration of belonging.

At his moment of death he finally admits to his secrets – who he was and still is.  “It is finished” says someone at his bedside, repeating the words of Christ.


Image result for images the death of ivan ilyich

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