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April 2016

How do human beings know who they really are anyway?

Central to the LGBT/religious conservative conversation is a question that’s been earnestly explored by human beings since their beginnings (whether in a garden or a cave) and continuing today in full force: Who are we?! (And how is someone possibly to know that anyway?)

To many, the question is maddeningly simple: We are who we areand even if it takes some time to find that out, eventually we all realize that. And after that happens, what more is there to say? 

Maybe…a lot?  Arising out of our contrasting philosophical, cultural and religious backgrounds, however, different conclusions about identity seem to tie up most of our attention – with competing declarations of ‘hey, this is who I am!…this is who you are!…this is who we are!’

Holding conviction is certainly not a problem – not for such a meaningful subject. But for a question of such importance, maybe we could reserve (just a bit) of mystery, wonder and even curiosity. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for instance, once said the following about the subject of identity (clip starts at 35:04):

Who we think we are and who we actually are…are very different. And the narrative of who we think we are takes over an enormous amount of time and energy in our heads. And the irony is that we’re much bigger than who we think we are – no matter how big we think we are or how diminished and small we think we are. It’s like – it’s just thinking! It’s not the actuality of who we are…at all. So if you take any of this to heart, then you can embrace yourself in a way that embodies dignity, self-respect, loving-kindness, self-compassion…and then there’s really no boundary – the skin is not the boundary of who we are.

For me, at least, I love how Jon combines a welcome attitude towards who we see and understand ourselves to be (in this moment), with a sense of mystery and majesty at the possibility that there is way more to learn and understand (in future moments)[1] – aka, ‘gosh, I could be totally wrong about some of this…’

As dangerous as that uncertainty might feel to anyone with specific convictions about identity (right or left-leaning, religious or non-religious), what does it mean when the conversation allows no uncertainty whatsoever – no possibility of seeing (something) more?

Being true to who I am.  The New York Times recently featured “In Search of the True Self” written by Dr. Joshua Knobe, an associate professor at Yale University in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. Knobe starts the essay with the scenario of a man named Mark Pierpont who experiences inner conflict about his homosexual attraction – and remains unsure whether to resist or to embrace those attractions.

Faced with a predicament like this, Knobe notes, “We might be tempted to give Pierpont some simple advice. We might tell him that what he really needs to do is just look deep within and be true to himself.”  In other words, “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

He continues, “another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he…gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

Knobe suggests that each of these perspectives “seems like a reasonable one, at least worthy of serious consideration,” adding, “So it seems that we are faced with a difficult philosophical question.  How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?”

What a fascinating question! I’m not even sure most of us have ever seriously considered it: “how do we decide what parts of our experience are fundamental to who we are?” One man who experienced same-sex attraction early in his life mentioned often hearing messages that “this is who you are…you need to be true to yourself” and referred to a line in the Incredibles, where one character tells Mr. Incredible, “You always tell us to be true to ourselves, but you never say which part of ourselves to be true to” (VH-GB).

On that point, Knobe himself provides two possible answers. On one hand:

If we look to the philosophical tradition, we find a relatively straightforward answer to this question [namely] that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values. Take the person fighting an addiction to heroin. She might have a continual craving for another fix, but if she just gives in to this craving, it would be absurd to say that she is thereby “being true to herself” or “expressing the person she really is.” On the contrary, she is betraying herself and giving up what she values most.

Although there are meaningful differences between sexual and substance use experiences that naturally constrain comparisons, Knobe suggests the following potential application of this approach in the case of Mark Pierpont:  “It says that his sexual desires are not the real him. If he loses control and gives in to these desires, he will be betraying his true self.

He continues, “But when I mention this view to people…they often seem stunned that anyone could ever believe it. They are immediately drawn to the very opposite view”:

The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression. To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out, they think, one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them. This view, too, yields a straightforward verdict in a case like Pierpont’s. It says that his sexual desires are what is most fundamental to him, and to the extent that he is restraining them, he is not revealing the person he really is.

Whether or not someone yields to, embraces and identifies with sexual desire, of course, is an act that very often relies heavily on rational reflection.  Even so, as Knobe himself concludes, “In my view, neither of these two perspectives fully captures the concept of a true self. The trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology. But it seems that the matter is more complex. People’s ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living.”

In other words, people will tend to arrive at different conclusions regarding the nature of self depending on their various values about sexuality, relationships and God. Knobe goes on to share his own experimental evidence[2] – which is consistent with Jonathan Haidt’s own research – in confirming this insight:  Our stories of who we are (all of us) appear to arise more from what we want, care about and value, instead of simply what we ‘see’ or reason.

Settling our heart (and then our mind) on a self.  If it’s true that we don’t discover our identity by pure awareness alone, it seems we human beings are compelled (at least in part) to a journey of exploring our identity through the prism of what we each want and most deeply value. As the philosopher Charles Taylor once said, “My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand” (Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity).

Rather than simply discovering who we “fundamentally are,” the question becomes “what do we want to be fundamental to who we are?”

Given the diversity of our desires and passions, maybe it’s understandable that people come to different conclusions. If so, what would it mean to build a little more spaciousness into our conversation about self?

  • Maybe we don’t have to insist that all we see in our current experience is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’…
  • Maybe we don’t have to cling to a finished-and-complete narrative of identity (however convicted we may be of certain aspects)…
  • Maybe we could approach our moment by moment experiences with a little more curiosity, adventure and awe in the unfolding experience of learning about (and becoming) this thing called ‘who we really are’?

This doesn’t mean we should avoid identifying with what feels precious to us, of course. It just means we could hold our stories of self gently…tenderly – with an openness to something more.

Beyond the pale of what we already see…

What is there?  I say: Let’s keep finding that out…maybe even together?


[1] It’s hard not to recognize the parallels between Jon’s statement – and this one from a Christian author: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him” (Adam S. Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, 2014, 17–18).

[2] He goes on to describe the results of an experimental study where naive participants were given scenarios to judge – with conclusions that either confirmed or conflicted with their conservative or religious values. Conservatives, for instance, read a scenario about a man who stepped away from same-sex relationships and read this:  “At his very essence, there was always something deep within Jim, calling him to stop having sex with men, and then this true self emerged.”

The results of the experiment confirmed their hypothesis:  “Conservative participants were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the conservative items, while liberals were more inclined to say that the person’s true self had emerged on the liberal items” – showing, as he puts it, “The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self” – hinting at the “notion of a true self…wrapped up in some inextricable way with our own values and ideals.” (Test this with yourself, Knobe suggests, and you’ll probably find that “your judgments also end up corresponding in this way to your own values”).