Am I really the me I think I am -the cogito ergo sum I have been led to believe? Or have I been naïve all these years in assuming my identity rests solely inside somewhere -in the uniqueness of my brain, maybe, or in the peculiarities of my experiences that no one else could ever hope to share in the same intimate fashion? Am I, in other words, a self-portrait?
I was raised in a society that values self-fulfillment as if were a birthright. Even the motto of my high school was ad maiora natus sum –‘I was born for better things’. Not we, you understand but I… me. And, of course, my teachers were only too happy to inculcate the values of independence and self-reliance in each and every one of us. Competitions on the sports field, and gradations in our marks, only heightened the feeling that each of us was separate, and in charge of our ranking, somehow. It seemed only natural -to some of us, at any rate- to see ourselves as nascent statues seeking our own pedestals.
There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that as I grew older and gained more experience, I began to realize that I was not alone. Much like my shadow that followed me everywhere, so did the world. Indeed, everything I did, and much of what I thought, was influenced by others -either by assimilation, or unwitting imitation. The opinion of others, although sometimes shunned, was more often modified and subsequently integrated as if by disguising it, I became the author. And yet, deep down, I realized that the parthenogenesis of ideas was largely fictive. I was swimming in the same waters as everyone else…
But it was not as traumatic as I might have predicted in my tutored youth. In fact, on reflection, it has been more affirming than repudiating, more reassuring than discouraging -almost as if I had finally been accepted as a member of something I had unconsciously coveted all along. I had not capitulated to something I had struggled against, but, instead of staring through its windows like a bewildered shopper, I was welcomed through the door.
But why? Why the initial reluctance to accept my membership in something to which I had always belonged? Some of the answers emerged in an online publication, Aeon, from an essay by Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science student at University College Dublin. https://aeon.co/ideas/descartes-was-wrong-a-person-is-a-person-through-other-persons
‘We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues… Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.’
‘The 17th-century French philosopher [René Descartes] believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism.’ The only thing I can say for certain is that I am, because I am the entity able to conceptualize it. The rest of the world could be a dream -but not the dreamer… So this leaves the effects of anything else on us in a sort of limbo.
Of course others have tried to get around the problem: the 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin ‘believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity… Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.’
I love that. It suggests that we derive our identity -our very existence as that identity- through our interactions, recognition and validation by others. Think of people in solitary confinement in prisons. ‘studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.’
And it’s not just in prisons we can disappear. I met her at a bus stop -or, rather, she met me. I happened to be the first person in a lengthy, but orderly queue waiting in the rain for a long overdue bus.
“I was actually first,” she said, staring at me defiantly. She was well dressed in a grey skirt and I could just see a frilly white blouse under her upmarket raincoat. Her short, dark hair was barely mussed in the wind and rain it was now enduring. “I was waiting over there… Out of the rain,” she added, as if to prove her point.
I smiled pleasantly at her as the bus pulled up. “I should have done the same,” I said, furling my embarrassingly inadequate umbrella.
“I didn’t want you to think I just came along, you know,” she persisted. “Sometimes people get really upset when they’ve been waiting in line…”
The way she said it made me think this probably wasn’t the first time she’d crashed a queue. “No, please go in front of me,” I said, trying to show I was not upset. “It’s raining and you don’t have an umbrella.”
She promptly boarded the already crowded bus, then signalled me to sit beside her on one of the only remaining seats. “Do you live in the city?” she asked as soon as I was settled. She looked anxious.
I nodded politely, thinking she was just looking for a way to start a conversation.
I nodded again, but her eyes immediately landed painfully on my face.
“Landlord, or renter?”
“Excuse me?” It seemed like a trick question, and I was immediately wary.
“You live in a house,” she said slowly and carefully, as if I was hard of hearing.
I nodded, carefully.
“Are you renting it?”
This was getting uncomfortable. “Why do you ask?”
Her eyes scratched at my face for a moment, before flying off again. “Because the city is trying to institute rent controls.” She frowned as she said it.
I brushed her cheek with a quick glance before I stared at my lap. I still wasn’t sure why she was asking. “Do you think that’s a good thing…?” I asked, trying to seem tentative.
“Oh yes!” she hurried to answer. I could almost feel the exclamation mark hovering between us. “Landlords shouldn’t be able to take advantage of their tenants.”
“So, I take it you are a renter?” I said kindly.
“Of course! I’m a single woman now. I’ll never be able to buy a house…”
“Do you like the place you rent?” I asked, trying to change the subject a bit.
She blinked at me, probably wondering if I was trying to trap her, but she relaxed a little. “It’s a bit of a hovel, really. The fridge makes a noise and only one of the burners on the stove works. The walls need some paint, and the rug is frayed…” She sighed and fiddled with a button on her coat. “But it’s the only place I could find.” She looked at the person sitting in front of her for a moment. “I thought it had promise when I first saw it, though…”
I had obviously unleashed something.
“The landlord says he wants to fix it up.”
“Certainly sounds like it could use some work,” I said, smiling.
She glared at me for a moment, and then softened her expression. “That’s exactly what he said.” She glanced out of the window at the rain. “But then he said he would have to raise the rent to pay for it.”
“Do you think that’s fair,” I asked.
I could see she was about to say ‘no’, but she changed her mind and turned her head to look out of the window again. Finally, she shrugged. “We’re both caught, aren’t we? On the one hand, I don’t want to pay more, but on the other, I’d love to see the place fixed up.”
“But if rent controls come into effect, he’s also in a bind, isn’t he?”
She nodded sombrely. “I mean, they’re probably a good idea, but…”
“But they don’t work for you or your landlord…”
She sighed again, and then shrugged.
“Of course there is a way out, isn’t there?” I said, thinking I was just stating the obvious.
She nodded. “Let him fix the place, and pay more rent.”
“Could you not come to a fair compromise with him about the price? Or maybe agree to a gradual increase over, say, a year, or something?” I smiled conspiratorially at her. “After all, rent controls only kick in if you complain.”
I could see her eyes widen as she thought about it. She nodded her head, slowly, and a smile quietly spread over her face. “He’s actually a decent guy…” Suddenly she reached for the pull cord. “My goodness, we’ve been talking so much I almost missed my stop,” she said as she stood and squeezed past me. And then she turned to face me as she struggled through the people standing in the aisle. “I’m so glad I talked to you,” she said. “Thank you,” was the last I heard from her as she disappeared through the sea of dripping coats.
Sometimes it’s good to talk about your problems, I thought and smiled to myself, glad that I might have helped her. ‘A person is a person through other persons’ -wasn’t that the Zulu phrase Abeba Birhane had quoted in that article…?