You’ve got to be yourself
I called this blog Ruminations. When cows chew and chew and chew on grass, it’s called ruminating. This is a question I’ve been chewing on for a long time: What does it mean to be yourself? Can we ever really be free?
These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.
And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.
And thus your freedom, when it loses its fetters, becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.
– Kahlil Gibran: The Prophet, On Freedom
When people grow up, especially when they go to university or move out of their childhood home, they often go through a period where everything they thought they knew about the world gets turned upside down. It feels like, for the first time, they are thinking for themselves. Their whole way of seeing the world is challenged, and it feels good and right. For many LGBT people, this could be the point of coming out. They break free from what they were brought up to think, from what society has told them is true and right, from how the world has told them to live.
This is an illusion. Of course, it feels like they are thinking for themselves because they can see that the person they were, is not the person they have become. They can criticise their own (past) thoughts from a new angle, and present reasoned arguments for better ways of living, better ways of thinking, better ways of doing things. Most likely, they will be happier.
Having discovered a new worldview, people then begin to live in a different way. They seek out like-minded people and discuss exciting new ideas. They might attend meetings or clubs where people do the things they do and speak the right kind of language which, most likely, shows some kind of disdain or contempt for whatever it was that came before.
“I used to be so racist.” “I so passively accepted that capitalism is the only way.” “I was a victim of this heterosexist, androcentric society, but not any more.” “I can’t believe I used to be a Christian.”
The new world is exciting. It feels right. A person’s life story, their history, is re-written: their life was always leading them to this point: the discontent, the frustration, the need for freedom was always going to bring them here. What was before was wrong, it was bad – it was evil. The new is right, it is true – it is good.
What people do not realise is that in finding a new way of thinking, they are being introduced into a new world, a new society, a new system which also tells them what they can and cannot do, think, or be. If a person’s eyes are opened to liberalism, they reject a conservative worldview, but are then socially blocked from conservative viewpoints. At the time, of course, this doesn’t matter because it’s right, and because it’s right, it’s good, and they want to be resocialized. This is not to say that they reject people simply for being conservative. It is to say that they have shifted their worldview sideways more than they have ‘progressed’. Because it seems, usually, morally good, people feel more fully themselves. They have grown up.
In order to be themselves, people need a context to be themselves in. They need people to reassure them that being themselves, and thinking the way they do, is good. That’s because in the society of the modern, liberal West, ‘You’ve got to be yourself’. The ideal of ‘being yourself’ has been handed to them by society. So in being themselves, people are conforming to a standard. In order to be themselves, people need other people who are also themselves, so they can all be themselves together. They are living out the script that has been handed to them, that says, ‘Be an independent thinker with your own thoughts’ and ‘Live your own life’.
If a person were ever so fully themself that they were truly an entirely unique individual, they would be thought insane. No-one would ever understand anything they did, or said. It would defy every category of understanding society had, and they would have to be isolated – or killed – in order not to harm to the social order. What people do has to make sense to other people. For that, they need a social environment to tell them how to be.
Yet: in order to understand reality for what it is, it is necessary for people to see the world differently from the rest of society. It is necessary for them to become aware and critical of everything society has told us is true, and good. And it is necessary to do so without a care for what other people think of them, in order not to be ‘pleasers of men’. (Or, so I am made to think by my current social conditioning.)
Is it ever really possible to break free of the social? Is it ever really possible to become truly objective, understanding reality without the taint of conditioning? Can we become God-like, truly knowing good and evil?
I think this does happen, but only very rarely. In Stages of Faith James W. Fowler identifies radical visionaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi as such people. He puts them on Stage 6 of his six-point faith-development scale, described as ‘Universalising Faith’.
Persons best described by Stage 6 typically exhibit qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species. And their leadership initiatives, often involving strategies of nonviolent suffering and ultimate respect for being, constitute affronts to our usual notions of relevance. It is little wonder that persons best described by Stage 6 so frequently become martyrs for the visions they incarnate.
– James W. Fowler: Stages of Faith