My resolution for the year 2017 was to be a better person and live a more fulfilling life. Little did I know that this resolution ended up becoming a quest for answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
In early 2017 I discovered a concept that seemed to escape me at my youth. I learned that human beings are not 2-dimensional characters in a bad 90s sitcom—we are a confused, complex species that is forever adapting and evolving with the times. Essentially, I learned that the concept of a fixed identity is a lie and that you can always choose to reset it.
Let me put all this philosophical talk aside for a bit and start from the beginning: let me tell you why I decided to study the human character in the first place.
Before my exploration of the human character (specifically my own), I was kind of a wreck. I was narcissistic, egoistic and emotionally unstable. I looked at the world dualistically and believed that one could either be good or bad, right or wrong, a winner or a loser, ugly or beautiful, but never two of these things at the same time.
I applied this dualism to my own image. On days when I felt like I was good at something, my ego would inflate in my chest and take on a character of its own. But these highs were always accompanied by incredibly low lows. On days when I felt I was bad at what I was doing, I couldn’t even stand to look at my reflection in the mirror.
I kept going through this loop of feeling like I was the best person in the world and feeling like I was the absolute worst. It had to end.
Thankfully, I came across this quote from an unknown writer in mid-2016 that struck me with an idea —
“If you want to kill yourself, kill what you don’t like. I had an old self that I killed. You can kill yourself too, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop living.”
This quote resonated with me on many levels, but its biggest takeaway was its allusion to a fresh start.
I decided that from then onwards I would re-evaluate my perspective of the world and that for this to happen, the old me had to die.
My symbolic rebirth
After my symbolic death came my symbolic rebirth.
Now that I had killed myself, I was ready to start again on a completely blank slate. Guiding me through this process was a theory from my favourite Western philosopher René Descartes: the theory of methodological skepticism.
Descartes explained his theory of methodological skepticism as a rejection of any and all ideas that can be doubted and a reestablishment of the ideas that are deemed genuine. To be more specific—
"Suppose [a person] had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot spreading. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? In just the same way, those who have never philosophized correctly have various opinions in their minds which they have begun to store up since childhood, and which they therefore have reason to believe may in many cases be false. They then attempt to separate the false beliefs from the others, so as to prevent their contaminating the rest and making the whole lot uncertain. Now the best way they can accomplish this is to reject all their beliefs together in one go, as if they were all uncertain and false. They can then go over each belief in turn and re-adopt only those which they recognize to be true and indubitable.”
This is how my concept of symbolic rebirth worked.
I would scrap everything about my old self – would disregard all past accomplishments, doubt all past experiences and put aside all ties to religion, race, gender, etc. – and begin anew.
To do this however, I had to first identify the, “foundations” of my identity.
Foundations are something I came up with during this process. They represent the parts of my identity that I felt I had no say in or control over. After some thought, here’s what I narrowed my foundations down to —
This list of foundations can be compared to Descartes’ analogy of apples in a basket. The list (my, “identity”) was the basket and the items on this list (my, “foundations”) were the apples. I threw all the apples out of the basket and inspected them one by one.
The results of my identity crisis
As I made my way through the year, I realised that coming up with a list of foundations and telling myself to unlearn everything I knew was the easy part. The hard part was reestablishing these foundations and making sense of my beliefs.
In my search for answers I devoured tons of books that left me feeling more confused than enlightened. All the research I did into (what I now think are) abstract concepts like religion and beauty often left my head reeling.
Halfway through the year I felt like giving up and falling back on my own ways. It wasn’t easy living on an empty basket, as when you have no foundations to rely on everything becomes a question to you, even your perception of reality.
If I had to wrap my experiences up with a neat little bow and share it with you as a lesson, here it is: absolute truth is unknown to us. Each person on this planet is grappling with his or her version of their truth, based on his or her background or personal experiences.
Life becomes complicated because human beings are prone to dualism. We label things as right or wrong, good or bad because of how we ourselves grew up or the experiences that we ourselves have gone through.
The fact is however, that sticking to dualism limits your potential. Human phenomenon like racism and hate happen because of dualism: we see the good and bad of a certain culture because of the stark differences with our own background; we label a person as good or bad because their idea of morality differs from what we were taught to believe in growing up.
If human beings could only put aside their “identities” for a bit and open their minds up to new ideas, we would not only be able to break our personal glass ceilings and explore the depths of our potential, we would take humanity to new heights, leaving concepts like hate, prejudice and intolerance behind.
Stephen Hawking was correct to suggest that—
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”
The only apple that I now put in my basket and believe to be absolute truth is that life is a gamble and that humans are a beautiful, twisted, complicated mesh of emotions, thoughts and identities.
My search for answers to my own character taught me more about the meaning of life than it did anything else. I learned that life was abstract and that the human potential is seemingly limitless. I also learned how insignificant my identity is to the big picture.
As Descartes once said —
“I think, therefore I am.”
Think about it this way: you are also whoever you think you are.