I'm reading
Who am I?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Who am I?
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Who am I?
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
7 March 2019

Who am I?

The answer—always, inescapably—is that I am one of us.

Written by Hugh Mackay

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Tu Cam on Unsplash

In an era of rampant individualism, it’s not surprising that many of us have become obsessed with the idea of trying to “find ourselves” by a process of personal self-examination, or trying to “define ourselves” in terms of our uniqueness.

This is an almost inevitable by-product of the Me Culture—a culture that encourages us to become increasingly self-absorbed, and to convince ourselves that “it’s all about me.”

We are all subject to a regular bombardment of propaganda that reinforces the Me Culture. The increasingly sophisticated and pervasive messages coming from the consumer mass marketing industry chime with the belief that life can only get better as long as we sustain our economic growth. Which, for the individual consumer, translates into buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend and, if necessary, borrow, borrow, borrow.

In his book Well & Good (2004), the Australian social analyst Richard Eckersley wrote: “We are told that a highly individualistic, consumer lifestyle is compatible with strong families, social cohesion and equity, environmental sustainability, and a sense of spiritual connectedness to the universe in which we live.” Reviewing the evidence, Eckersley concludes: “It is not.”

Well, of course not. Whoever imagined that consumerism was a pathway to fulfilment or even to a sense of personal identity? Am I to be identified by the stuff I own, the brands I buy or the wealth I acquire? No source of wisdom— ancient or modern—would encourage such a thought.

The reinforcement of self-absorption also comes from a less obvious source: the happiness industry with its assurance that happiness is our birthright and the pursuit of personal happiness a valid strategy for living. (It’s not, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Whether it’s the promise of material comfort and prosperity or the promise of personal happiness, it’s always about Me: my prosperity, my comfort, my happiness. And once we’ve been seduced by the Me Culture, it makes sense to think of ourselves primarily as individuals, and to approach the idea of personal identity as if it could be discovered by gazing into a mirror, or at our navel.

Surely, we think, there must be an essential me, that marks me off from everyone else?

It’s true that we are each unique in our genetic make-up and in the particular influences that have formed us. No one else has had exactly the same upbringing and life experience as mine.

But those individual differences—those unique aspects of our nature and nurture—are not, in fact, the most significant thing about us. The most significant thing about humans is that we are members of a social species that utterly depends for its survival on our ability to relate to each other; to form ourselves into communities—herds, tribes, groups—that nurture, sustain, protect us and give us our sense of identity.

So if you want to “find yourself”—if you want to discover who you really are, don’t gaze into a mirror; gaze instead into the faces of the people who love you, the people you live with, the people you work with, the people who are prepared to put up with you. That’s who you are!

Identity is a concept that makes no sense without a context. Personal identity in isolation is meaningless. Who am I? The answer—always, inescapably—is that I am one of us. I am defined by my response to the needs of the communities I belong to. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi put it: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 19 books–12 in the field of social psychology and ethics, and 7 novels.

hughmackay.net.au

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.