Existentialism 5: The Real World and Individual

7/21/13 Ken Wais

Existentialism 5

Personality: Public and Private

Have you ever felt like you are sometimes behaving in ways that you don’t with yourself?  Maybe you have not consciously reflected on this, and that is understandable.  What I am talking about is how people, all of us, seem to lead two separate lives.  We behave in our private world, differently than when we are interacting with other people. Let me explain what I mean by this statement.

Actors in a Reality Play

If you are at work for instance you don’t speak to business contacts the way you would to your relatives or friends.  In fact, the style of speech and rules of colloquy are entirely different than those you use with your familiar relations.  You wouldn’t say to your direct superior, your boss I mean: Hey jerk, what the fuck happened to that water cooler we had?  That is, if you didn’t expect to get canned on the spot.  When making a call to a customer service line, you don’t start off explaining how you went to a good movie yesterday.  When receiving calls at your job, you don’t use the speech pattern you would with your friends and relatives.  Moreso, you have a whole catalog of behaviors tailored to every situation in which you interact with other people.  You would never discuss your sexual passions with your parents or your children.  You wouldn’t try to explain abstract concepts to pre-adolescent children.  You would not relieve yourself in a public place, or discuss your views on topics with those you know can’t understand them.  What is this kind of behavior telling you?  Well, here is the point of those previous examples.  We all play a strange game of being a person that has several identities.  We are one state of mind to ourselves and another to the outside world.  In the mature portion of our lives, we learn to play act.  We are not moment to moment aware we are being actors in the play of life. We are embedded in this world unaware we are play acting. 

The question now becomes if you have these several guises that you use, where is the real you?  I have experienced this play-acting behavior as I’m sure you have too.  When I am intentional about something, like getting a job, or attracting a woman, I am not the person I am to myself.  I craft my personality and behavior to fit the goal I want to achieve.  Can I be said to be true myself in these cases? No, I can’t. I am the person being-towards-the-Other, as Sartre would have called it.  My identity is submerged for the moment; I am trying to be what they expect of me.  Social play-acting is common in our world.  At the end of the day where do these various behavioral personalities leave us?  We are clearly not identifying with ourselves as we affect different personality types to others daily.  We have learned them, as we grow from infant to adult.  As children we don’t know that we have to be actors in a reality play.  Everyone has seen the child crying and misbehaving in public because he or she can’t have this or that.  The mother threatening to admonish him or her is embarrassing for the onlooker as it is for the parent.  Yet, this kind of distasteful scene is a good example that children have not yet learned that in this world we must play in a game of false identities.  We must be this way for some and that way for ourselves.  Social beings must have different persona.  They can never be publically what they are privately.  This dichotomy is so inured to us we don’t even recognize it.  It drives all our actions in the social world.  We decide upon it.  We make choices based on it.  You might decide to share something with one person and not another depending on how close they are to yourself.  By which I mean, how much of your inner private world you want to share with them. We have had the experience where you are told: Don't say that to him, he's very sensitive about that. So, you don't say that to him. You are careful to avoid that whatever it might be. You play-act again. You put on a behavior that is not you in effect.   The way that we deal with this the psychologists call: Compartmentalizing.  That is we split our world into distinct categories and behavior as we believe is our own identity in each.  This is the kind of mental landscape that allows a rapist to be happily married with children. 

So, Just Who Are You?

We all experience what I’ve described above.  We compartmentalize our lives into categories of behavior.  In the end, then who are we?  Is consciousness a conglomerate of many individual states of mind?  This can’t be entirely true, since we experience a persistent state of conscious awareness that we call I.  By which I mean my individual state of being.  This idea of a persistent state of being has been discussed by existentialists for many years now.

This persistent state of being idea has to do with a notion of being whom you are minute-to-minute or even second-to-second.  You always feel as you are the same being you were in past times.  But, you do know that over time, you’ve changed as a unified personality.  I know, I am not the child of 14 years of age when I was hungrily consuming comic books and identifying with Spider-Man.  I know I am not insane without any way to test reality and believe that voices in my head are hectoring me to do odd things.  But, what I don’t know is who the person thinking inside my head is.  What I am saying in plain language is how I identify with myself is a mystery.  I can’t get at the thinking machine in my head.  It becomes paradoxical the moment I try to know myself.  It does, because to examine myself I have to not be myself.  I have to get outside myself and examine myself like a third party would.  But I can’t do that! We are all stymied this way.  We are a conglomerate of experiences and ongoing mental exchanges that span our lifetimes, but never can we capture and define ourselves like an object.  Yet, we never feel estranged from ourselves.  We never, moment-to-moment feel as if the person in the last seconds was now not the one it is.  Does Existentialism have an answer to this paradoxical state of affairs?  Well, kind of, I can say. 

Existentialism looks at the individual as a being that is defined over time.  That is, we are never a complete being that has a final defined self-identity during our lifetimes.  We are always a work-in-progress.  We can change our views and perceptions of who we are during our living existence.  It is the changing process that defines whom we are.  But most unsatisfying of all existentially we can never achieve complete self-identity.  Or simply put, I don’t know who I really am!  I remember telling a friend that his childish sculpture was a work art, as to not hurt his feelings, knowing it was a lie, as I said: Hakim this is really good! You should do more of these works. Hakim agreed and went way feeling he was a real sculptor.  I had lied to him.  Was this behavior what I am?  To lie, to not cause another shame or emotional pain, is that me?  I’ve lied to myself upon occasion too.  I’ve believed at times that what I did was somehow right, not wrong.  Is this too me?  A self-deceiver!  You see my point?  We can’t define ourselves as any of the transient mental states of being that we have.  If we are an ever-changing consciousness like the waves of an ocean, then just what do we make of our consciousnesses? Yet, the sense of being you remains with you through the course of your life doesn’t it?  You’re a being that is at once proud then ashamed, resolute and then confused, depressed and fearful, and then again uplifted and eagerly positive of your future.  Your states of mind change as your life unfolds.  But, most of all, you are never in control of this process.  If you doubt this last statement, try to stop thinking now.  You can’t!  This conversation with yourself goes on without cessation until you die.  You can’t control something so basic to your being as thought.  And what would it be if that internal mental activity did stop?  What would you be then?  Unconscious I guess.  And thus not a self-aware being at all.  Does this intangible, ghost-like consciousness control you and not you it?  Existentialism says you are the thing that is thinking and this process is all that you are.  You are the existing thing that is aware of a world outside itself and nothing more can you confirm.  Not even that you the existing thing, knows what it is! This is similar to trying to get at something time and time again, not being able to reach it. The experience I relate it to, is looking at VB code in a text editor and thinking you've fixed the problem, just to find it doesn't work. I can remember changing an input form only to get the error: variable is not defined. I would scream: Godamnit! it is defined you...&*^% thing. I'd try it again, and again, and again. Same error message. It felt like knowing but not knowing where this little thing is. Only to realize hours later it wasn't declared explicitly in the program declaration module, on line such-n-such and that was the problem. As I slumped back in my chair, I thought: oh shit, that was it all along. Why didn't I see that? This is what trying to get at your own consciousness feels like to me.     There may be a way to get beyond this state of affairs. If we could just supersede our existing state of being? As you might expect this will involve computer technology. The ability to become in some sense superhuman. That's what we'll discuss next, and as needless to say from the perspective of Existentialism.

Existentialism 6: Going beyond Human

Back to Existential Concept

The Existential Concept: Part 1