Sunday, August 11, 2013

Being Original In Modern Times

Personal Existence

“Happiness can only exist in acceptance.”
George Orwell

“My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth,
even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.”
Miguel de Unamuno


Miguel de Unamuno [1864-1936]“That which the Fascists hate above all else, is intelligence.”
Photo Credit: Anónimo; 1930
Source: Wikipedia

One of my favourite existential thinkers is Miguel de Unamuno. In The Tragic Sense of Life (a translation of Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida), Unamuno recounts early in the book a conversation that he had with one of his best friends, with whom he took frequent walks:
On a certain occasion this friend remarked to me; “I should like to be So-and-so” (naming someone, and I said: “That is what I shall never be able to understand—that one should want to be someone else. To want to be someone else is to cease to be who one is. I understand that one should wish to have what someone else has, his wealth or his knowledge; but to be someone else, that is a thing I cannot comprehend ”(9)
Neither can I. Now the expression “being yourself” might be casually thrown out too much, usually as a reminder to the person’s essential being. The reason that this sentiment is universal is that there is a powerful instinct in us to be precisely who we think we are. And, if truth be told, would you really want to live your life as someone else? That does not mean you cannot improve areas of yourself, if you find them deficient in some way.

But, can you really change your core being? Such a being as yourself has been developed, so to speak by a combination of genetic influences and environmental effects, a combination of your parent’s genes and the way that you grew up. Our obsession with trying to be someone else, like a celebrity, so as to conform to some societal notion of normal or acceptable behaviour is to deny yourself—it is to deny the importance and testing of original thoughts and ideas before they are even formed, let alone matured. And it’s patently absurd and self-defeating. You will lose self-respect and get nothing of value in the bargain (Think Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby).

Originality in thought and action has become rare these days, the fear of being different than the pack, than the masses, is so great that original thinking becomes easily defeated. It hardly has a chance today.

Today’s times are conformist to a large degree. The individual pressure (and fear) to conform to societal notions, resulting from a combination of advertising interests, political and religious dogma, political, economic and social propaganda, stigmatization of the other and self-censorship, has lead to a giving up of individuality and individual freedom. In a society with many putative choices, all roads become narrow and directed. The end result is an inability to make individual choices, a loss of human dignity, and sense of helplessness. The public spaces, meant for freedom of expression, has become smaller, and the need to conform larger.

If you notice children, they are very comfortable with themselves. Off course, we do not wish to remain as children in thought, action and all behaviours. That would make us childish individuals, and there are enough of those types already. But we can learn to become comfortable and understanding of ourselves, which brings self-respect and self-acceptance.

The struggle is to be yourself is not easy, notably when so many false values accost you daily. The trick is to be yourself without imposing your values or intruding on others’ beliefs, while maintaining self-respect and self-dignity, and equally important, providing the same for people around you.

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A version of this article was originally posted on Perry J. Greenbaum (September 29, 2010).