The Myth of Self-Discovery

Our culture focuses on self-discovery. From our youngest years we are inculcated in the pursuit of “finding out who we are.” In a psychological sense, we do, indeed, need a strong and healthy sense of Self, of a sense of being that is separate from and unique as compared to others. Failure to develop a healthy sense of self can lead to all sorts of personality disorders, including narcissism and codependency.

But that is not, in fact, what our popular culture, including self-help literature and media, focus on. The focus on the self as promoted in our culture is an ever-amorphous and fluid creature, largely created out of reaction to surrounding stimuli and internal and conflicted desires. We tell our young children, “You can be anything you want to be.”

But what is this “you” to which we are encouraging our children to be? We speak of authenticity, but what do we mean by that except for the bare assertion of our desires? Indeed, this “you” we promote is changeable, first this, then that. Young boys sometimes say they want to be firemen. Young girls sometimes say they want to be a singer or a doctor. And as far as young children go, young persons still developing psychologically, this is fine.

But what do we tell a high school student? A college student? Can a single mom with two children really be whatever she wants to be? Can a divorced man in his fifties really turn himself into a George Clooney-like celebrity?

Mid-life crises used to be a thing a couple of decades ago. A man, usually in his forties, having dutifully provided for his family in a dead end job for twenty years, suddenly “wakes up” and “realizes” he has lived a fake self for two decades. What he really wanted to be was the host of a travel show. A woman, perhaps in her last thirties, tied down at home by three kids, having left the workforce and her career to pursue motherhood full-time, now decides she wants to live the life of a traveling singer. She suddenly has an “epiphany” that she missed her calling all these long years ago.

Middle life is certainly a time of reassessment of one’s life and legacy, but to seek that assessment in something like “self” “discovery” is a dangerous delusion. There is no such “self” to “discover.”

We are not, any of us, made up of labels, or dreams unfulfilled. First, all of us have unfulfilled desires and dreams. It is part of the human condition, and especially so in our affluent twenty-first century. But who we are, the quality of our lives, is not determined by how many dreams we have fulfilled, nor by any particular career or use of our gifts. We all have gifts that go “unused.” A get together of blue-collar workingmen will unsurprisingly reveal talented musicians (guitarists, violinists, saxophonists, etc.). That accountant daily crunching numbers has a novel he has been revising for the past three years. It is his fifth. He is so far unpublished. The guitarist workingman might dream of the rock and roll life. The writer accountant might wish he could write full time. But that neither man is “living his dream,” does not mean his life is less than it ought to be.

Our lives are not meant to be lived out in this or that vocation. Few men’s lives flow out so directly as that. Many, indeed, most of us, head out in our youth upon a particular path, the sense of calling and mission strong and motivating. But age, experience, the various circumstances of life, our choices most of all, can send us in a different direction. That we are not living our once-sought-after vocation does not mean we have lost our self. Viewing the self through the prism of calling or career or economic level, indeed viewing ourself in any sort of quantitative way is a false self, a delusion. And it has wrecked many a man, a marriage, a life.

Rather, our true self is discovered in the quality of the life we live. Are we academically gifted and able to teach others well? Yet do we work in a dead-end office job, nowhere near our erstwhile vocation? This is nothing over which to fret. The true question is: what is our character? Have we proven loyal to our spouse, our children, our family? Even in poverty, have we loved much and given what we could? Are we a friend, a neighbor? Do we care for those in need? Then the quality of the live we live will show forth who we are indeed. The self we seek is no mere surface chimera, changing with our uncontrolled desires as we shift this way and that. The self, if such a self we seek, is not a thing or a result or a number. It is an indefinable peace, it is mercy, it is love.

There, truly, is where we discover our true self. In the love we express and give to others.