To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘I Could Only Think in Terms of Me, and Now I Understand’

For most of last term I wrestled with a question: who am I? I think that most people, particularly within the college-age bracket, will have asked themselves this kind of question at least once. Afterall, plenty of thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes to Marx to James to Camus and countless others have tackled the age-old question of identity and what the hell we’re supposed to make of this thing understood as “the self.” Further, who can blame these thinkers or ourselves? Life is a particularly peculiar experience to undergo, especially when we account for the fact that we cannot expect to receive an explanation for how it all started and whether we can expect to derive any kind of meaning from an experience which we are—quite literally—thrown into void of any account for our volition.

So, it is only natural, that as knowledge-seeking creatures, we would want to understand who it is this person, understood as the self, is. If we’re expected to animate this biopic of life, as Stephen Fry called it in his novel, Making History, it is only fair that we would want to wholly understand the director, narrator, and main actor (a.k.a., you, fine reader).

For a long time, frankly, as long as my memory stretches, I can recall being told some iteration of “find yourself.” Folks would call upon me to “find” who I was, as if I was some archaeologist going on a metaphysical expedition trip to try and uncover… me? Now, I don’t know about you, but this is a quite bizarre proposition in my mind. Think about it. You’re trying to tell me that I will unearth who this ever-evolving personality understood as myself is by just “finding” it? Within my own mind? Or body? Or both? Excuse me, respectfully, but have you completely lost your marbles?

In my mind, this notion of “finding yourself” is absolutely absurd, and I highly doubt that anyone has ever understood who they are and what they hope to become by fishing for it in the microcosm of the self. Hence, you can understand why, during a particularly stressful semester, while wrestling with the question of identity, I ran into a (metaphorical) wall. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this thing. How was I to find me if I didn’t even know where to start looking? And how was I to know I’ve actually found myself and not some false characterization of me?

These questions ruminated on the backburner of my brain throughout the fall. In winter, I opted to turn the heat off in order to redelegate whatever mental energy I was devoting to these questions to more pressing matters, i.e., my slew of papers and final exams. I mostly didn’t think about this question of identity until the final week of winter break. One January evening, I was rewatching Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, a film documenting the concert tour by the same name, and I came back to these questions head on.

The film itself is a treat for any Dylan fan, but there’s a line in there which particularly resonated with me. In the beginning of the film, modern-day Dylan (the tour ran from 1975-6) articulates his original vision for the tour, and in classic Dylan fashion, ventures off topic to give his treatise on what was and what is. Somehow, Dylan spits out the phrase “life isn’t about finding yourself, or anything else, it’s about creating yourself.” Woah: now this was good. I went to bed that night with a new mode of life to mull over.

“I Could Only Think in Terms of Me, and Now I Understand”

I think what Dylan’s reframing of the issue reveals is that when we cast the notion of the self as a cultivation of character, rather than an expedition for identity, we find that the self becomes more of an ongoing project than a resolute entity. What I mean by this is that when we think of the self as an undertaking, it grants us a sense of determinism in the scheme. We are the cultivators of something which has yet to be fully formed. I think that this view is a much more accurate vision of how people think of themselves than this notion of “finding” who we are. I think that our preconceived understanding of what “finding” is, implies that what it is that we’re looking for is already developed.

However, I do not think the self is fully developed, especially not when one is at a place in their lives where they find themselves asking who it is exactly that they are. Rather, I think that most of us think of ourselves as an ever-evolving project. The essence of us is not complete until the timer of life runs out. Even then, I’m not so sure we can claim that the project of the self is fully complete when our time on this Earth, as who we are in this life, is finished. I haven’t decided whether I think that we finish creating ourselves by the time we die or whether something else makes that decision on our behalf. But that’s another question for another column.

Back to Dylan’s thesis, I think I come away from it with the understanding that we engage in a lifelong creative process to create the person who we become and there is something wonderfully liberating about that thought. Such an understanding demands that we conceive of the self as a something that is not preordained or inevitable. Rather, the self is something whose content must be taken into our hands. In this light, the self is a piece of unmolded clay which must be taken by our own hands and shaped into whatever it is that we decide. We are a creature of our own formation, and that autonomy is thrilling.

I came across the notion of existence as distinctively active exercise in a work by the great German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. I think Nietzsche is right. Life is not something which just happens to us, as if we’re some passive entity with no capacity to direct its trajectory. We have a say in the game of life. I think we forget this much too often, particularly when we’re trying to understand who it is that we are. I think I come away from all of this with a sense of drive: we are our own creators, and what we say goes when it comes to the character of our being.

Get Our Stories Sent To Your Inbox

Skip to content