In America, as well as many different cultures across the world, people try to find out who they really are. Humans are perplexed by the notion that they can’t understand themselves, and sometimes fixate on trying to find a sense of identity. “Discovering yourself” means different things to different classes, with computer scientists from San Francisco doing Ayahuasca in South American countries, while less privileged high school graduates join the military instead. In different cultures, this fixation on finding yourself manifests in different ways as well. For Chinese-Americans, often brought up by upper middle class white-collar immigrants who beat Confucian values into them, this often results in them not pursuing the career they specialized in past school; doing what they like for the first time in their lives instead. For Jewish Americans, brought up in households that feel alien and restrictive in the decadent west, this often results in Jews playing out the role of the “bad girl” or “bad boy,” rebelling against the boring pragmatism of their culture. For all of these people, from the people who deviate from what their culture wants to the people that stick to their chosen paths, the self matters a great deal to them. The truth is that the self that you find, in any given place at any given time, is bound to change as fast as the scenery and times do. This isn’t because the self doesn’t exist, but it’s because the self is a perpetually-evolving reaction to the brain’s experiences with the world it finds itself in. Finding your sense of self, to use a metaphor here, is like trying to find the essence of the river in the handful of water that you scooped up from the river.
There’s many ways to get an idea of the river, but to truly understand the river, you just need to look at its contents, it’s shape, it’s formation, it’s destination, and so on. Everything that forms the river can be found in the material universe and people aren’t different in this way. The man or woman that drew up a handful of water from the river wouldn’t be the same person the next day, the next week, or the next year, just as you wouldn’t find that same handful of water in the river ever again. When people try to understand themselves in the moment, by diving into whatever they perceive their “inner world” to be, looking for the essence of who they are, they are unwittingly scooping up a handful of water from the stream of consciousness that has encapsulated most of their life, not realizing that whatever handful of themselves they grab in that moment will never be found again. The best way to understand who you are is by looking at your past behaviors, your past actions, your past values, the culture you grew up inside, and then contrasting that with who you are today. Looking at what led to you adopting different traits over time can help you get an idea of who you are, and allow you to realize that the self you’ve been looking for has been sculpted over the entire course of your life by both yourself, your environment, and the people that have made their mark on your life. Your sense of self is a mosaic of different values, behaviors, and experiences, rather than a static object waiting to be found. Your perception, behavior, and values in the present moment are just the most updated version of your self, with many more updates to come.
Karl Marx said that material conditions determine social and spiritual conditions and that’s demonstrably true, when it comes to the formation of your self. Using the Constructivist approach, if you look at the events that led to you taking on beliefs and reforming them, you can understand how you’ve evolved over time. Beyond all this, your self is just your conscious experience in any given moment. Trying to find yourself is innately pointless, as it’d be similar to a radio station trying to find the purpose of its existence in the waves it constantly emits out into the world around it. At the end of the day, the radio station is just a radio station, rather than the waves it emits. The fact that people can’t do or conceive of such a simple thing today is a sad indictment against the society we live in. It may be that the culture that capitalism creates innately breeds insecurity and competition, resulting in people refusing to truly identify with themselves, and rather projecting their self-worth onto what they own or how they live or where they work instead. Perhaps the search for the self is more a symptom of people being alienated and disgusted by their own personal experiences in life, never feeling that their lives and successes match up to their peers, with their minds conflating their peers’ broadcasted and curated images with what is actually real, in a manner similar to people feeling tormented by the perpetually euphoric lives that other people seem to live out on social media. In this way, the conflict with their self that people experience may just be a mild disassociation.
Either way, the self isn’t as important as you, because your conscious choices dictate what the self becomes. Humans’ selfs are like radio waves that we send out, with parcels of these radio waves being received by different people in our lives who tune in to listen from time to time. Your coworker has a different perception of your self than your significant other does most likely, as do your close friends and your family members.. At the end of the day, the self to the external viewer is entirely superficial and based on what’s apparent, rather than being based on who you actually are, until the person begins to piece together the puzzle and figure you out. Ultimately, your identity and what others understand to be your self lies both outside your conscious experience and your control. The fact that people consult medical personnel and experience things like depression, anorexia, anxiety, narcissism, and other disorders over their distorted perceptions of their selves should be noted, as these problems, beyond cases where they’re caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, are purely artificial. In a world where we can look at the atomic structure of molecules, figure out how to create neural networks, and devise comprehensive theories on the origin of the universe, the fact that people can’t understand themselves is unnerving. In a species with so much potential to innovate, create, and learn, we are completely handicapped by our lack of metacognition in understanding ourselves, how we came about, and how the world around us works. The self is a product of the environment and the meat suits that we inhabit, rather than any spiritual matter, and we should continue to look at identities in that way, cementing them in the material reality of the world in order to objectively look at and understand ourselves. Without tying ourselves back to the reality from which we sprang, as reactive beings that feed and develop off the stimuli of the world around us, the self cannot be found. Without embracing dialectical and historical materialism, without embracing constructivism, without gaining class consciousness, the self cannot be truly understood.