Most of my life, I was told that my primary goal should be “finding” myself or being “true” to myself. I assumed that these directives meant that there was some deep self that was hiding far down in my interiors, and if I could just find this self, I would be fulfilled.
I never could locate this unchanging “I,” though. If anything, my experience suggested that there was no such thing. I was often confused, contradictory. I felt nebulous, shifty as the weather.
I am in the eighth grade. I just won a prize in my Sunday school class for memorizing the most Bible verses. I am a committed Christian. The next week, I read Camus’s The Stranger. There is no God. Later, I score a couple of touchdowns in the big game. I’m a serious jock, and don’t need to waste my time thinking about metaphysics.
Such fluctuations are of course part of growing up; we are constantly trying out selves. The hope is that we will eventually hit upon the true one, and then experience the happiness of knowing who we are, and the excitement of fighting to remain authentic in a world persistently tempting us to abandon our integrity for fleeting pleasures.
But by the time I reached middle age, I still hadn’t discovered my unwavering “I.” Was I a phony? Spineless? Neurotic?
This diagnosis was reassuring in a way, because it explained my chronic bafflement over who I was. How could I grasp my true self when I was vacillating wildly between mania and dejection?
I started psychotherapy (in addition to psycho-pharmaceutics). My therapist told me that I did indeed possess a true self, but that I had blinded myself to it by conforming to the expectations of others. Instead of being my innermost Wilson, I was acting out scripts foisted upon me by my parents, friends, and community. Even though I was a grown man, I was still unconsciously trying to please my father, for instance, or win friends by doing the class clown routine that had worked so well in grade school.
My adherence to the scripts of others had alienated me from my original "I," and the split between my social self (my persona) and my real one (let's call it my soul) was exacerbating the symptoms of my bipolar disorder. If I could reconcile this rift, if I could know the difference between “performing” and “being,” and balance the two, then I could manage my disease more effectively.
Problem was, the more I tried to uncover this deep self, the more frustrated I became. I could talk all day about my memories, fantasies, dreams, and I could reach some conclusions about what I thought my real identity was. But once I left the therapist's couch, I found that my insights didn't translate into clarity and ease. When I faced the difficult issues of my everyday life, I was just as bewildered and tormented as I had always been.
Reluctantly, I changed psychotherapists. I say reluctantly because I was very drawn to my first psychotherapist's ideas, grounded in the depth psychology of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. I had long studied and admired these thinkers, and was enamored of the idea that rigorous introspection could reveal true identity.
This assumption—the unexamined life is not worth living—was the basis of my very livelihood. I was (and am) an English professor specializing in Romanticism, the literary movement that virtually created the idea that individual experience is the source of truth and joy. Emerson, my hero, said, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
But I could find no consistent mind to which to be true. (Emerson, bless him, also said that too much consistency could be foolish, a "hobgoblin of little minds.") My new psychotherapist practiced cognitive behavioral therapy, roughly based on the idea that a self is a collection of the habits that we choose to express. Our harmful habits cause our suffering; to ease the pain, create new habits. Making these habits is similar to fashioning a new narrative for ourselves, and acting out that narrative.
A philosophical school behind this kind of psychotherapy is pragmatism, as developed by William James at the turn of the twentieth century. James believed that there are no stable truths, but that truths “happen” (as Robert D. Richardson puts it in his biography of James) to those ideas that help us negotiate our world effectively, elegantly, aesthetically.
James also maintained that the habits we form to express these “truths” are what constitute a self. A psychotherapeutic corollary to this theory is that we won’t get happier by navel-gazing but simply by deciding to behave as a happy person might. Smile more, to put it crudely, and you will feel better.
Recent neuroscience bears out this idea that the “self” is a fabricated narrative. Michael Gazzaniga has shown how the left brain transforms the raw data of the right into meaningful stories. Daniel Dennett has demonstrated that the brain possess no central cognitive unit but rather processes data in several regions. What gives our being a “center of gravity” is language, with which we construct a cogent “I” to which we attribute, as we would to a character in a novel, intention, agency, rationality.
These theories are unsettling. They suggest that we make life up as we go along, improvising, and that our beliefs are relative, having no ground in stable reality.
At the same time, though, the notion that our identities are novels in the making is exhilarating. It grants us freedom, especially if we are sad, to create a more vital self. And our fictions are in fact not relative. Some are “truer” than others, if by truer we mean those narratives that are most alive, that connect us to the wide world in ways that are surprising, diverse, complex, ironic.
This doesn’t mean that we can be whatever we want. Actual things happen, of course. My genes fling my brain between hyperactivity and despair. Not much I can do about that. But I can decide how to interpret this fact, and how I will act on this interpretation.
Just as gravity will throw us into the sea if we leap from a coastline cliff, our genes and a multitude of other factors will force us into actions over which we have no control. But we can decide how to fall—flail wildly and smack the water in a belly-flop, or arc into a swan before entering the blue with nary a splash.
To dive well is not easy. Same with creating lively habits and sticking to them. (Some say it takes over two months for a habit to take.) But though the work is arduous, often sorrowful and fraught with failure, it is the artist’s labor, ecstatic, the struggle to transform painful, chaotic experience into orders exuberant and astonishing.
This is based on my new book, Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life.