I was recently directed to an article posted by The New York Times about the definition of self. The article is written by Julian Baggini: author, co-author and editor of more than 20 books as well as the founding editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine. The headline reads, “What Is the Self? It Depends.”
It certainly does. We all have a broad sense of who we are. This definition of self naturally changes as we get older. As children, we define ourselves by our names, address, families, schools and hobbies. For example, “I am Jane. I am a sister and a daughter. I like horses.” By the time we’re in high school, the tune has changed to, “I am Jane. I want to go to college and study literature and fall in love and travel and someday be a physicist.” Sometimes the person we think we are at 18 turns out to be remarkably close to the truth; most often it is not.
I’ve found while progressing through my 20’s that my sense of self has both strengthened and evaded me. It’s reasonable to say that shifting interests, richer experiences and different relationships keep our sense of self constantly changing and growing with each year. However, at the same time, with every day that passes we are faced with questions that are less superficial and more existential — questions about our mortality, our purpose here and our worth as human beings.
In his article, Julian Baggini discusses how the self is defined differently by Western and Eastern cultures. In the East, he says, the self is largely defined by its relationality. The self is social. The self cannot have meaning outside of our relations to others. In the West, by comparison — as I suspect we are all aware — Baggini explains that the self is very much about autonomous individualism. He continues, stating many in the West are now questioning the philosophies of such thinkers as Hume and Locke, “wondering whether we have become too atomized, too discrete.”
In this age of technology and social media, it’s a question that we’re all asking. But it’s a beguiling one. This may be a superficial and silly means of thinking about it, but take Facebook as an example. I despise it. I think most of us do. But I keep it around for a variety of reasons. Most of these are bad reasons, but one that I think isn’t so bad is because I want to nourish a sense of community and humility. I don’t want to recede into autonomous individualism. I want to establish networks and friendships with people whom I wouldn’t normally. It’s fun to communicate with the girls in my Zumba group. And it makes me feel good and happy to write birthday wishes on a friend’s wall, to compliment someone’s profile picture or like their witty status. It feels as if I’m sprinkling little bits of kindness.
In a society full of hatred and cruelty, it feels good to do small but nonetheless meaningful acts of kindness – and to be able to do them so easily, too. It takes literally just the click of a button. It’s humbling to be reminded that the world is full of people who are loving and hurting, that our own individual struggles and triumphs are not worse or better or more important than others. I guess if I was feeling generous, I could say Facebook is conducive to a very Eastern sense of self: one of relationality.
That may be too generous, though. Last night I deactivated my account. I’ve decided that as good as it feels to be part of a larger social community — as good as it feels to sprinkle likes and Happy Birthdays like happy confetti — it feels worse to negatively compare myself to others, waste minutes and brain cells reading posts and comments and follow shared links that I really don’t care about. So here I am slipping back into the Western sense of self: the autonomous, self-driven ego.
Perhaps it’s silly to think about philosophy of the self as social media. But I can declare one thing. Today, my first day without Facebook, I’m going to try to build a more tangible sense of community in my real life. I’m going to make the call that I’ve been making excuses around that will let me start volunteering for the local library and historical society. I may not be able to sprinkle happiness today by liking someone’s profile picture, but something tells me I’ll still find a way to spread cheer in other ways.
Baggini concludes his article by saying that there is no right or wrong way to define the self, either exclusively by Eastern or Western ideas. Rather, we should use others’ definitions of self to better understand our own. “The question posed by a fruitful engagement with the East,” he writes, “is whether [the] continuing self is best sustained by its own resources alone or its engagement with society and with others.”
The self is fluid and fluctuating. Our integrity of self is tested as we get older by our actions towards others, as well as by our generosity towards ourselves. The self is social but also individual. It’s a harmony that we should strive to get closer to with each day. So spread kindness when you can. Cultivate community but also take care of yourself.
And for the love of God, delete Facebook.