When your life hangs on the line, it is common knowledge that you may do uncharacteristic things, and even things in violation of your own theoretical values and ethics. Therefore, it is important to consider that our identity, our vision of ourselves, is also something people feel the compulsive need to defend, even to the point of actually violating the values they theoretically uphold (especially in situations with group pressure or influence).
If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with someone experiencing cognitive dissonance, then you know that arguments often don’t have anything to do with the objective weight of facts, but instead how people feel about the facts and how these facts would directly or indirectly affect their view of themselves, and their place in the world. This can even extend to their view of others, insofar as the other people represent an important part of their identity, for instance by validating their arrogance, their position, or their membership in a group.
Therefore, I would say these reflexive defensive actions, these intense emotionally based defenses of the self, don’t just apply to our flesh and blood, but also to the various constructs about who we are and how we relate to the world around us. When ideas threaten to put everything one believes in, or pictures for the future, in jeopardy, then people are apt to reject them out of the fear of metaphysical death.
They feel that if they were to accept that one facet of how they view the world was totally wrong, it may lead them to re-evaluate everything, much as Descartes did, and come to the conclusion that they know nothing except that they exist. Of course, this is not really a rational conclusion: it is a logical fallacy based on the slippery slope argument, but nonetheless something often believed on an emotional level.
Often, this contradicts their theoretical appreciation of open-mindedness, and can lead to them groundlessly argueing against theories or statements they know nothing about outside of the fact that it would endanger their existing understanding of the world. Ironically, while sometimes simultaneously vocally defending the ideal of open-mindedness. All, in the defense of the self, what many people call the ego, and what I call identity.
I call this identity, and not the self, I, Ego, or Ich, because the real person is just an individual combination of psychological features, partially created partially out of context, and given possibility by genetics. Each person is a particular flavor of humanity: each human starting like a clear lake, open to all future possibilities. Various nutrients and/or toxins (in the metaphore this is experience) seep into this water over time, reacting together with factors like temperature and acidity (which represent genetics). With time, changing conditions and experience can force the lake into a new state, creating a new range of possibilities, a new ecosystem stemming out of, but forever differentiated from, the original state.
But unlike a lake, a person is not a passive object of their history, circumstance, and experience: only able to grow what the conditions and ecological state allow. Unlike a lake, we have the ability to conciously drive our advancement: to not run from the fear of death, to not deify the identity or the Ego, but to instead decide to see what is behind the threatening door. When this happens, we see a decrease in limbic (emotional) activity and the activation of cognitive re-appraisal systems.
Often, people even find the new knowledge and wisdom liberating; freeing them from how they mistakenly saw the world and from the stress they felt when confronted with the idea initially. It allows them to get above the water: to have slight control over the conditions of him/herself instead of being merely an object of circumstance. But to step out of the water, one has to be prepared to change and to leave the old self behind. One has to be prepared to metaphorically die and to embody the one stable thing: the truth.
For as the samurai knew, the abstract fear of death can keep you from adaquately defending your life, keep you from living fully. To accept death as a condition of life helps allow the full appreciation of life. The same is true in regard to our abstract self: one has to be prepared to allow old beliefs to be replaced with newer truth, and not fear being wrong.
But, how can you be the truth when the truth is beyond your reach? How can you embody something you cannot know completely? For the truth is not an absolute value, not a particular constellation of facts, but is an accumulation of all variables and all data, even that which is far in excess of our ability to perceive, even that which seems to contradict, and which we forgot to think about. So in it’s never-ending movement, the truth offers a fortress in the midst of an ever-evolving universe; an island of stability in the eye of the storm.
This means the truth is something we can continuously approach, but never fully reach, and which when taken as one’s identity, provides an island of stability inside the tornado which is the ever increasing understanding of an impossibly complex universe. This is the opposite of the normal identity, that which is normally described as the self, which seeks to establish a glorious-looking dwelling, unprepared for the storms of reality, and merely hopes to avoid the winds of truth. Thus the answer to overcoming the Ego is not to abandon all ground (Nihilism), not to say we know nothing, but to continually strive to improve what we know, test it, and never accept the answer one has as being the final answer.
This view is not entirely new, and its basis can be seen in Plato‘s school of philosophy and reflected in modern science. It is a philosophy which allows the transformation of dissonance into knowledge, of frustration into productivity, and failiure into useful deductions.
So who are you? You are what you are becoming. You are not defined by who you have been, by any of the constructs you use to explain to yourself and others about who you are. What we are becoming is something we affect every day, with every decision, every impulse we decide to inhibit, every example we set for others in the world, and something we can actively influence.
It is therefore saddening to consider how many people feel trapped under the surface of the water: believing themselves trapped under some label of a psychiatric illness or personality disorder, believing themselves imprisoned by past habits and maladaptive behavior. They forget that not only does your brain possess neuroplasticity, but your personality is also malleable; open to being changed and adapted.
You are a mix of where you have been, where you are going, and where you want to be. You can affect where you have been through the meaning and interpretations we give to the past, you can affect where you are going now by inhibiting negative impulses and choosing to do right even in the face of uncertainty, and you can choose where you want to be any free moment of any day: including right now.