Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

The worst advice you can give to people trying to find themselves is to look within. That presumes a person is like an onion, with layers of social selves to peel off to get closer and closer to the inner core, the true self. The idea is that if you sit in a room with yourself and focus on yourself, you will get in touch with the “real you” or self-actualize the “real you.”

People who try this sometimes find there is no “real you,” or they just make up a bunch of stories and poses about who they think themselves to be.

That’s because a person is not a closed system that can be studied in isolation. A self exists only in relation to something else, while perceiving something and interacting with the world.

It’s more useful to conceive of a person as an artist. On the journey toward becoming themselves, artists often begin by copying some predecessor whose work they admire. Early on, the Beatles copied Buddy Holly and other artists. Countless writers started out by trying to copy George Orwell or Toni Morrison.

We’re mimetic creatures. We learn by imitating what excellent others have done before us…

Everybody is like that in a way. Everybody is grabbing from the world bits and pieces of thought and fashion that they can mishmash into their own personal way of being. The more sources you borrow from, the more interesting your self is likely to be…

“A man with few friends is only half-developed,” Randolph Bourne observed. “There are whole sides of his nature which are locked up and have never been expressed. He cannot unlock them himself, he cannot even discover them; friends alone can stimulate him and open them.”

Gradually, out of these interactions a self emerges. This is the hardest phase. You can pile up myriad influences. You can pile up performances. But eventually it all has to cohere into a distinct way of perceiving the world, a distinct way of expressing yourself in the world.

This simplifying process can make a person’s voice more powerful and focused. Zora Neale Hurston went back to her hometown Eatonville, Fla., as a setting from which she could express what she wanted to say about life. For his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln went back to the Bible to get the cadences and truths he needed to express his point of view.

Everybody who is writing a book or making a presentation or being a person in the world has to eventually wrestle with that cohering question: What’s the core here? Or as Miles Davis put it, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

— David Brooks, from “How to Find Out Who You Are” (NY Times, July 28, 2022)


Notes:

  • Thank you Laila for inspiring this share.
  • Photo: Mart Production via Pexels

 

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