Throughout my life as a philosopher teacher, I interacted with students struggling with self-identity. They didn’t tend to use that phrase, of course, but they were thinking about who they had been, who they were and who they might become. Those are questions of identity, and Socrates’ claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and his admonition to “know thyself” serve to stimulate such youthful self-reflection.
But as the writer Norman McLean once noted: “the problem of self-identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time for everybody. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.”
So, what about self-identity? Is it created or discovered? Are we creating ourselves or discovering who we are? How we think about this has important consequences. To speak of discovering or finding the self suggests that there is a self hidden from view, and if we are diligent enough or lucky enough or, in some cases, unfortunate enough, we will uncover who we are. On the other hand, to talk of creating the self suggests that we have a big responsibility: the task of bringing something into existence, that we are responsible for who we are.
Our ordinary language is ambiguous. Think about such statements as: “You need to get in touch with your real self.” “Finding out who you are is a life-long struggle.” “Until this moment, I never knew myself.” All of these statements assume that self-identity is something to be discovered.
On the other hand, consider: “You don’t have to be the way you are.” “Life is a continual process of revising the self.” “By dent of her effort, she is not the person she used to be.” This language assumes that the self is created.
That self-identity involves discovery and creativity is precisely the insight of 19th century German existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche’s admonition: “become who you are.” This is Nietzsche’s provocative way of saying that self-identity is something discovered and created. In discovering who we are, we encounter a variety of possibilities waiting to be realized. Both the possibilities discovered and the task of actualizing those possibilities is captured by the phrase “become who you are.” Of course, as will be noted in a moment, it may not be a good thing to become everything we discover that we might become.
Noting the role others sometimes play in our lives makes clear that self-identity is often something we discover. Karl Jaspers, another German existentialist, noted that we all have a multitude of superficial friendships. But if we are fortunate, he argued, we will also have some depth relationships, significant relationships with others who see in us and reflect back to us possibilities that we had never seen in ourselves. Such moments of discovery, made possible by the insights of others, can change our lives forever.
On the other hand, noting the moral character of the unfolding drama of self-identity makes clear that one’s identity is also a matter of creativity. The drama is moral because some selves that we could become are better than other selves that we might become; we are constantly making character-forming choices; it is better to become this self than that self. Become who you are? At times, yes! At times, no! Surely we do not want to become all that we could become. We are potentially many persons, ranging from destructive to virtuous. That is something we discover. Moral creativity enters the picture in deciding what we are going to do about that discovery; in deciding which of the possible selves we are going to become.
Self-identity has two functions: relating to one’s self and relating to others. Being aware of the two functions of self-identity can aid in deciding which of our possible selves we bring into existence. Think about the self’s relationship to itself. A self with a clearly defined purpose or set of purposes in life provides direction necessary for flourishing. When in moral seriousness we ask “Who am I?” the question is often a prelude to moving from being scattered, from being pulled this way and that, to finding a purpose that gives focus to life, that prioritizes a multitude of secondary interests.
The second function of self-identity is a social one, for in deciding to become this kind of person rather than that one, we are also deciding how we will live out our lives with others. A self that relates constructively with others, that enters into friendships, that fosters community, is helping create an environment essential to the self’s own flourishing. This is abundantly evident in our experience with the coronavirus COVID-19. Making the rounds is a piece by author Laura Fanucci in response to the virus. Edited, a portion of it reads: “When this ends, may we find that we have become more like the people we wanted to be, we were called to be, we hoped to be — better persons for each other.”
Thoughts about individual self-identity also have relevance for thinking about our political life. For not only are we as individuals discovering possibilities about ourselves and deciding which of those possibilities to realize, the same is true of us as a nation. American philosopher Richard Rorty once eloquently described America as a poem, but also as a poet constantly revising the poem. Stories about who we have been and who we ought to be are “our attempts to forge a national moral identity.” As a nation, he argued, “we should face up to unpleasant truths about ourselves, but we should not take those truths to be the last word about our national character, for our national character is still in the making.”
From Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature” to Ronald Reagan’s “a shining city upon a hill” to Martin Luther King’s dream, we are constantly being made aware of our nation’s possibilities, our potential identity. The political decisions we make (think of the current presidential primaries and the November general election) are our means of helping to decide what kind of national identity, what kind of national-self, we will become.
This ongoing process of creating our individual selves and, politically, of creating our national-self is both the burden and glory of being free.