Who am I? Let us consider how I may answer this question. Irrespective of who poses it, a response is almost certainly a recite of what others have determined of me or confined me in. That is, a list of items which I am be identified with are but things assigned me, and barely of my own making. Almost all are abstractions. None defines me in any real sense. I am not a name, a date, a place of birth or residence, previous studies, or what I do, have done, or the sum of these. If anything these are merely historical accounts of events. Individually or together, they do not suffice to give even a slightest inference of who I am.
Nonetheless, as if it were by some law of nature, it is by them that I am identified. Furthermore, it is largely on the basis of these accounts that I am afforded or refused participation in societal tools and practices. From them, I am labeled a baby boomer, I am expected to attend school, a credit worthiness of me is determined, am afforded or denied healthcare and so on. And from these I am further expected to ventriloquize: to speak of myself as if with the voice of others. My own identity, if there was one, or a quest thereof, appears subdued, silenced, as if in defeat.
A certain seriousness is associated with these laws; I am expected to be what has been determined I am, or else has been designated me. My being and acting is very much constrained to bringing about an outcome that has been determined in advance. If I am a student for instance, what I must do, where I must be, including a time when I may no longer be considered so, are clearly laid out. A playfulness in which my acting may be original, which may by chance bring about a new me, an original me, or take me to an unknown outcome is rare.
A freedom fighter, a boxer, have well been locked into achievements they made well before their prime – physical, moral, mental – and so to the world they must remain pinned to those past achievements. Their continued coverage in the media for instance, has very little of value or respect, even if merely for the present. Largely, a piece of gossip is made about them, as if their relevance to us and importantly to themselves, had been of relegating them to being objects of gossip, after which they can only be left in peace upon rest. Who they are then, is not a question of what new journeys of self discovery or development they might undertake but what they have already done and is well in their past.
Any person of common sense must wonder about the nature of a society that had neither the time to get to know its members for who they really were nor a patience for a self discovery of its members. A society that was only curious about them to the extent of classifying them in a manner that gave an appearance of uniformity and obliterated any signs of ingenuity, originality and distinctiveness. In such a society, the human purpose, as it were, is to fit some predetermined classification, to act and be treated accordingly. I am thus not surprised that I am yet to meet someone who defines themselves by anything but their societal classifications or role. The teacher, engineer, doctor, president, citizen. These anchors weigh heavily on each and everyone of us that we can barely think, leave alone engage in endeavours beyond what we are given or assigned.
In his critique of compulsory schooling John Gatto wrote that as a teacher, of innumerable things to study, only he could determine what his students could, and that good students were those who did what he asked of them. That somehow, the students learned to see themselves as he deemed appropriate of them, without a hint of the narrow confines of self discovery and development they were being placed in. Such are the sources of definitions prompted about my identity, as if it were so important to know by what means society had confined me. If so, it would be proper to ask me in what manner I had been so far constrained, whence my response might be to the point. As of an identity that I may uniquely be, I have not taken the time to discover it, leave alone cultivate it.
A good acquaintance has confided that he has had to sideline his aspirations because his financial obligations have sapped him. Parenthood, he has put it, is what now properly confines him. He does not have the self discovery, reinvention and development mobility that he says he once had, and would like to have. His occupation, according to him, is bereft of these. Unknowingly, he mirrors my reality. And so I wonder what would become of me, were I to abandon my profession. Would I have any ambitions for continued self discovery and development, have I reached my epitome, or have I been properly locked in what I have done in the past? If so, should I consider escaping these confinements, and if yes, how? If we are to spend the better part of our lives thus, we will effectively stunt the said mobility.
Another has inquired of my future plans; if I was to move countries, as if it was worthwhile to do so solely on the basis of the weather, and not so much for what I may aspire to do. Implying that I should be discontent in not residing in a tropical climate, even though I cannot say such would catalyse a self discovery, reinvention or development in me. Or should it suffice for an identity if I resided in the tropics? In consideration, such outwards fixations may not arouse even the slightest striving for self discovery or development and their continuation. Primarily, I have to recognize my inward inclinations for these and move only if in so doing the wheels of self discovery and development in me were to be put in motion. At present, most will relocate for economic, social or political reasons, few for self discovery and development. Sabbaticals are rare, if at all. Many might not know what to do with them, besides indulging in pecuniary consumption or at best recuperation. Soul searching, self discovery, and development might be as alien as the furthest star in the universe. There is not a place, for me to visit, to see its folk at play: inventing, discovering, or developing themselves.
In a recent application for studies, I have been appalled by the said handling of my application mainly on the basis of such erroneous identification consisting of previous education, and future career expectations. Why should what I do in the present be determined or limited by what I have done in the past or what societal role I think I should play in the future? Is it not enough that I be interested in the subject of study? Should I not have it that neither myself nor society can see me as I might be in the future, what capacities I might have, to limit what I can or cannot do in the present on the basis of past confinements and an unknown future?
Such shortsighted thinking is the kind instilled in children in asking them what they would like to be when they grow up. It makes self identity a destination in the past, with the trajectory thereof, well known and established. It limits the future to the possibilities of the past. It gives an upper hand to the inquisitor for he can control what the child does in the present as long as it gives the impression that the child is being led to their said outcome. I am thus at no wonder that I have not been asked what I would like to do at this moment or why no moment has specifically been designated for self discovery, self reinvention, self development, anywhere. Why no one has taken the effort to educate me about these or why I have not been left to my apparatus to figure them out.
An idle mind, it is said, is a devil’s workshop, even though no mind can truly be idle. Furthermore, the devil’s workshop is the surest state for self discovery, and development. The devil is disruptive, always reinventing himself. Neither the schoolmaster nor the employer will entertain such thoughts, for it is chiefly to the ends of an institution or its role that I must work. Institution never to mine. The mind therefore has to be employed at a heavenly workshop, secondly for the sake of preoccupying it, primarily for institutional ends. And so I am employed at continuously re-inventing and developing some product or service, rarely, if ever, at doing so to the identity that I might be. That an idleness of the mind is a prerequisite for artistic and intellectual achievements is largely ignored. If one is to listen to their inner self, to discover, to reinvent and develop themselves, some idle time – free of cultural preoccupations and compulsions – has to be afforded them. It is a human right, but one we have chosen to ignore.
The promise of technology have failed a generation; promising shorter workdays – more time for self discovery, renewal or development – but appearing to deliver the opposite. To the dislike of some, I have developed a distaste for long work commutes. One would expect that with all the technological advancement made so far, most would be spared of this. Technology might nonetheless be said to come to my rescue, providing a proper distraction and escape from the boredom of the most uneventful routine. As of focused things I might desire to do while in traffic such as reading, no contemporary commute enables for proper concentration, leave alone the fact that in the rush hour, it is by luck that I may be seated. If I should do something, I do not think it is enough that it merely be a waste of energy and time. I would rather be asleep than in traffic, enclosed in a space, immobilized an hour one way, and another, the other, with my immobilization being the means and ends of the transport business. Bertrand Russell had the feeling that such a commute frays one’s nerves adding to their work-fatigue, and inescapably lessening their energy for extracurriculars, notably self discovery.
In the first place, all through working hours, and still more in the time spent between work and home, the urban worker is exposed to noise, most of which it is true, he learns not to hear consciously, but which none the less wears him out, all the more owing to the subconscious effort involved in not hearing it. Another thing which causes fatigue without our being aware of it is the constant presence of strangers. The natural instinct of man, as of other animals, is to investigate every stranger of his species, with a view to deciding whether to behave to him in a friendly or hostile manner. This instinct has to be inhibited by those who travel in the underground in the rush hour, and the result of inhibiting it is that they feel a general diffused rage against all the strangers with whom they are brought into this involuntary contact. Then there is the hurry to catch the morning train, with the resulting dyspepsia. Consequently, by the time the office is reached and the day’s work begins, the black-coated worker already has frayed nerves and a tendency to view the human race as a nuisance.
As I have stood by a station waiting for a train, I have watched someone drive up, park their car and have had to run to catch the train. It has dawned on me that moving faster does not in itself make us efficient as we go about our business. Even without reason, one would see the uselessness of having a car, if it did not lessen their hurry; these time savers apparently are far from saving anyone time. So far they appear increasingly as it has been put by some as improved means to unimproved ends. It would be reasonable to think that anyone in possession of a car would have the luxury of strolling – but, if anyone has, it appears to be the carless. So much for commuting, and an endless hurry from which one suffers a subtle but chronic fatigue, and sidelines the simpler goals of life as a result.
Bucket listing. The imminence of death could be said to be the ultimate wake-up call; it appears to prompt some to make life defining changes: to rearrange, prioritize their time so they can focus on what is important and worthwhile for them, and not merely for some institutional or occupational end. A bucket list is but one manner in which this is done, a soul searching of some sort that propels some towards self discovery, or reinvention if not development. A human, in these aspects, is after all not done until time is up.
Living itself, self discovery, reinvention and development, not the preparation for death should take such bearings: sincere, genuine, simple, bold, and original. Such may be as accurate a definition that one may assign themselves, with open horizons of possibilities, experiences, free of societal confines and preoccupations. But how might that be the case if we are caught up in a never ending effort of enlisting, preoccupying and confining one another into institutions or roles? How can one develop new subjects of study, art or sports, if our utmost concern is confining ourselves to what is already there? Is it possible for a culture to decay thus, when self discovery, reinvention and development are strangle held by a present that is merely a replay of the past?
Something could be learned from the fisherman who casts his line and gives in into unknown possibilities. Neither the time he makes a catch nor whether it is fish that he catches are certain. It is not even certain that he will catch anything. It might not even be important that he catches anything in the water, as in himself. The virtue of such a man we might say is in his inaction at controlling the outcome; his serenity at what is uncertain. That he may draw a blank string does not perturb him, in his boat he seats open to whatever the sea – nature – may bring him. It is in such a manner that an individual may discover himself, when his actions are open to all possibilities. When he is afforded the place and time to fish the waters in himself. It is thus that he may discover, reinvent or develop himself. If one were compelled to make in a certain time a predetermined catch in himself, his peace will desert him. Such bearings will orient him towards what is set for him, even though it be exactly what exhausts or worse sickens him. In recuperation, even at what may be the simplest of catches, he will draw a blank, and his perturbation will increase in fold.