There are many selves we can experience throughout a single lifetime. There are those through which we learn, those through which we teach, those through which we suffer, and those through which we can be truly alive. Each identity we act out is a part of a constant war between our individualism and authority. Authority is recognized through the exchange of dominance and submission. The expression of dominance by a group or tribe we “belong to” is often in explicit opposition to our individualism. When we must, we offer submission by neglecting our individual selves. This secures our personhood in a way, keeping our course confined to the approved markers of the authority. This is not to say that all authority is tyrannical and unnecessary. It is to say that when one is pursuing individualism, one must maintain a healthy strength in response to the authorities that constrict our actions. One must entertain that these authorities are not always motivated to serve our individualism or wellbeing. They can also destroy our individualism and wellbeing. And it is treasonous to one’s inner sense of individual power to assume that any authority should be trusted more than the self at the cost of wellness and individualism.
For the last few years I’ve been experimenting with my identity and my individuality. It started with a suspicion that my relationship with romance (or meaning) was somehow destroying my sense of self. I wanted to explore the relationship between romance, identity, and individuality. My goal was to become as precisely individual as possible. I’ve never been certain what that would look like, what it would require of me, or what would make the experiment feel ended. I had a pressing need to exercise my fortitude and freedom. What I have learned is that to become an individual, one must kill his family.
THE BLANK SLATE
My family forged my first identity. I was first a son. I was then a brother, a grandson, a cousin. Then I was a Christian, an American, a partial Cuban, among other things. These were inherited identities, as is the case with most identities. I had a sense of what it meant to be myself based on how it connected me to other people. These identities suggest a sense of debt, a sense of belonging, and a sense of responsibility. Through my most formative years my primary identities were that of family member and Christian. Yet, faith and family didn’t belong to any of its members – we belonged to them. Be a good family member. Attend the events and laugh. Act like one of us. Be a good Christian. Refrain from the sins and attend church. Close your eyes when we’re praying and don’t go astray. Contribute to these groups. I knew the script. I knew everything I was supposed to do or say to be in keeping with these identities, so as to not concern my keepers.
In my teenage years the standard struggle was born between these expectations and my desire to act individually. I started to resent my time being accounted for without my permission. I would battle with teachers through thought experiments. I started smoking cigarettes and acting a little more wild. I pushed against the sacrifices I had to make in order to be considered a good Christian or perfect family member, specifically those that had to do with thought. I started going off the script.
In my early twenties I confronted atheism and materialism for the first time, and I realized how submissive my role in Christianity was. When facing those views, these deep familial and emotional instincts would kick in. When I was afraid of what I was reading, I would lash out at the idea of Godlessness and retreat further inward to wherever Christianity had its claws in me the most securely. But eventually I found the last remaining talon. I saw that I was capable of releasing myself from its grip. I saw that the primary reason I was tempted to let it stay was to protect my place in these two groups – Christianity and family. I decided to embrace what made me feel like a stronger individual, rather than bending to the fear of guilt and shame. So I killed who I was, slowly and secretly, and I became his opposite. I killed the identity of the kid who belonged to those groups.
In doing so, I accepted that my need for my thoughts and actions to be approved of by these groups wasn’t a need at all. It was an anxiety toward taking responsibility for the authorship of myself, and acting as the authority of my life, to the degree possible. Of course authoring myself would be a more difficult task than I realized at the time.
THE ALT REBEL
I killed the blank slate – the son. I was allowed to think anything. And soon all the most predictable shifts started taking place. I turned away from the conservatism I had been raised under and gravitated toward liberalism, the hair-let-down energy I needed. Anti-theism took the place of theism and family was synonymous with friends and allies – other people who enjoyed this nepotistic attachment to what felt like liberation at the time. I learned their script and flogged myself according to their code of sin and obligation. Everything felt rebellious and fun. I became proud of my vices, I enjoyed being judgmental, and I looked for opportunities to say something cruel about myself – since that’s what everyone seemed to be doing. I built an identity as the antithesis of everything I had known myself to be in my purer youth.
But I eventually started to notice familiar patterns. The lefties were just as ruthless and devouring as the conservatives, in response to individualism. I had to say stupid things to be in their group, lest I be shamed. When I would invite my teammates into a thought experiment I was usually looked down upon. Liberalism seemed clearly like the religion I had just left, which didn’t function well with the anti-theism.
This silent disenchantment raged in my mind until I started to become this neutral bystander type of person. He didn’t feel very alive. He had goals, he could tell that some things felt better than other things, he was honest, but he was tired. I stuck with him for a while. I put all the other questions of life, ideology, and politics down, and I spent time with him. He started to reveal to me that without all that noise to engage in, my life was void of certain fundamental beauties. I was deeply dissatisfied with these stand-in identities, which I knew fully were tricky methods for passing off the burden of confronting whatever was really deeply in me – my devil, my unhappiness, my potential. So without decision, I drifted off this ledge, into whatever pit I had been dangling above – that which I hadn’t yet confronted. I killed the inversion of myself – the replacement son – he who wasn’t quite grown up.
This left me at the center of everything and nothing. I saw that I wouldn’t find peace through any ideology, which are in total opposition to individualism. I wanted to do the grueling, terrifying work of confronting the self – of being responsible for my own thoughts, actions, and wellbeing.
During that time I found a darker version of myself than I expected. He wasn’t pretty. I wanted a map for how I needed to live, and the belief systems I experimented with had failed me, which left me bitter. My mind grew darker. Of course by this time I had long since picked up the identity of musician; person that plays music; person that is expected to play music; person who even when not making music describes himself as someone making music. I wondered why this part of me wasn’t sufficient to serve as my direction. My interest in music has this strange marriage with the experience of the meaningful. Its something like music exists to capture moments in life that are meaningful, transcendent, beautiful, powerful, or sexual; moments that need to be expressed. But my identity lacked definition and meaning was nowhere to be found. Romance (as in, an appreciative perspective toward the rich moments in life) had been discarded. My desire to make music was unfueled and asleep, buried under a blanket of hedonism and nihilism. Hedonism is a fit subject for music, but I started to find that I hardly had the desire to put it on display. It felt morally acceptable, but spiteful. Nihilism doesn’t inspire music at all. It says that there is no point, so why bother. Without the meaningful, life is hard to want to capture.
I gave up the kid, and the inversion of the kid. I worked steadily at my job and I thought a lot. I was isolated, without a “group” or a “family” (in the sense of being subject to the exchange of belonging), and without abstract authority or social accountability, aside from those that we all have.
So the question became, how would I define my authority? It wasn’t God, my parents, or any ideology. So what would my days be made of, how would I spend my time, and with whom would I spend it? The answers started to become very individual rather than social. Should I go to an event? Should I go drinking? Should I call my old friends? No. I should work out, I should change something I’m bad at, I should clean my house. I started to pursue the stability that I could bring into my life on my own, rather than social acceptance or membership to a group.
I started to build a more peaceful individual. I read books, got on a good sleeping schedule, dusted my house. I made some new friends and played guitar a little. I invested in a few things to make my life a little better. I stayed focused on taking every step I could to become strong in my contentment. I stopped looking for thrills and started looking for stillness. I started learning about my nature and seeing what I could do to balance out my most dominant traits. A lifestyle of structure and order was proving to be much more predictable, calm, and indeed, very individual.
After a while the stability started becoming its own prison. I wouldn’t let anyone into my life in an honest way. I did away with allowing any other person to contribute to my wellbeing. But I was maxing myself out. It was easy and comfortable for me to satisfy myself. But I would watch admiringly from a distance as other people approached life with a different stride – a different energy – and I wasn’t always certain how to bring that out in myself. People have a nature, and while it is noble of one to take as much ownership of one’s nature and wholeness as one can, we are still fundamentally social and cooperative, to our benefit. We require connection. We are improved by the proper influence of others.
The purpose of individualism is to serve the self, to improve what you have to offer to the world, and to improve what you have to offer to other individuals. The amazing discovery to be made through individualism is that to achieve it fully, one must be capable of sharing it. One must submit to the authoritative call for a balanced, harmonious sense of partnership with the world in order to achieve peace within the confines of the finite self. As individuals, we must first learn what we should be strong enough to rebuke, so that we can learn what we must be vulnerable enough to accept.
THE INTEGRATION OF INDIVIDUAL POWERS
The pursuit of individualism can become a narcissistic hyper-focus of the self. To avoid this, one must balance the self through partnership, which is to extend trust to other individuals. When I describe romance, I’m describing the philosophical perspective that the beautiful experiences of life can provide us with transcendent meaning beyond that which we can find in ourselves. I do not mean tenderness or soft poetic whispers. I’m describing a relationship one has with life, in which he is grateful, appreciative, and humbled by the presence of that which he cannot experience within his own being. This appreciation can be had for a landscape, a painting, the moon, or a kind stranger. But it is most important that we pursue this experience with partners – friends and darlings.
In my view, romance within life may be the most crucial difference between the meaningful path and the meaningless path. Of course ideologies help us to derive a mission in life. But they fail us by putting us in opposition to people of the opposite ideology, rather than allowing us to be in opposition to our unrealized selves. Our identity as dependent children can fail us by prolonging our submission to our parent's concepts of who we should be. We risk despair upon abandoning our places in these families and attacking the self, but in time this can be liberation rather than dread. At the bottom of romance, there is a cold knowledge that life comes to an end and every second matters. Romance is the inversion of the fear of death. It is the fear of not living – or the joy of being truly alive. I suppose that our inner children are free from this knowledge. Until adopting responsibility for the self, we cannot experience the romance of life fully, because we are not in a contributive relationship with life. Individuals trust the place they have among other individuals. Obedient children cling to security in the shadows of their authorities.
Down one path, the person you choose to share a bed with is meaningless and temporary – a quick fix to a sad feeling. Afterward, you bear no responsibility to that person, nor to yourself. Once you have spent that time, you owe nothing more. That is hedonism. Down the other path, who you bed matters as much as the food you eat, the career you pursue, and the vote you cast. And when you and the other enter that pact of bodies, you bear the responsibility of then being accountable for what damage you do and what joy you ignite. You bear the responsibility of confronting the question of whether this bond will be lost, as does the other, if both individuals honor this pact. This is the integration of two individuals into a single entity that can transcend each individual. This is to submit to the reality that one individual is impacted by the presence of another without either individual having tyrannical authority.
The experience of romance is a revelation of meaning. Life void of meaning is void of advent. The individual must be on an adventure with life. The nihilist must not. They must avoid the risk of mattering. I am sure of this because I was that nihilist.
Romance is the recognition of the meaningful harmony between two individual forces, without which individualism is a tragic prison. Romance is not to serve the same fulfillment as financial security, creative passion, or self-reliance. It is the willingness to offer ones imperfection to life, in exchange for those brief, touching moments in which life justifies itself. Individualism is confused as an obsession with self-sufficiency or enemy of co-dependency. The mistake is to think that individualism has only to do with the self, measuring what we can provide ourselves with when we’re alone. Individualism is also a measurement of how much of our true selves we can manage to securely offer to other people, and how we respond to what they give to us. Individualism must serve our ability to experience life in harmony with others, by our own choosing.
From the start of our lives most of us are shaped by other people. Parents and other family members hopefully do the best they can to be loving and positive, but truthfully they sometimes teach us to be afraid or to avoid our individuality. Sometimes they might not want their kids to grow up. Sometimes they just want to protect their kids from being stupid. To become an individual we must first kill off the identity that relies upon the approval of those who shaped us – the symbolic death of the parent and the child. We might gravitate toward family-like social structures (like religion or political ideology) in order to extend our sense of self beyond the point to which it was brought through pure family, or to recreate the sense of having an authority to rely upon. Arguably, we do not need those bonds in order to belong or to thrive. The true individual can create his fulfilling family through different kinds of partnership – friendly, creative, work, intimate, and familial. He must decide what sort of family he wishes to build, rather than which sort he should be accepted by. And that is the goal of the individual – to be sufficient for creating the life and family that he desires. To become the authority of his wellbeing. To contribute positively to the family that he has created. To escape his identity as the submissive child, and to become the upright creator of outcomes, guided by the hardened self and the partnership of his most trusted counter individual – his other self – one who he could never be, and whose influence is in the service of his individuality, and her own, rather than in fearful opposition to either.