The breathing stops, I don’t know when
In transition once again
Such a struggle getting through these changes
And it all seems so absurd
To be flying like a bird
When I do not feel I’ve really landed here
Peter Gabriel – “Growing Up”| MetroLyrics
These words are from the song: “Growing Up.” The album: Up. The lyricist, Peter Gabriel: a middle-aged man, not yet himself, in transition, once again, whose story can’t yet be told.
Is the self a kind of story? It is becoming ever more common to hear it spoken about in this fashion. Whether one believes in a soul or not, it is increasingly difficult for many in the West to think of a soul as the self, the kind with whom we chat daily, when we speak to ourselves. Even if a soul exists, it doesn’t appear to be the “me” who abandons roots in one part of a country to relocate in another, who takes a new job or a new kind of job, who learns new skills, who travels widely, who makes new friends, and whose tastes change over time. No, the self as a story fits our way of life much more naturally these days than does the idea of a soul.
Telling stories about our lives is at least as old as, well, probably language. But the viewing of the self as a kind of story appears to be a more recent phenomenon. How did it happen? The explanation would require at least one heavy tome. Fortunately, telling this tale is not our concern here. The repercussions of seeing the self as a story is the topic at hand. Increasingly, we fashion stories of this sort and are actively involved in telling them as they unfold, perhaps due to the availability of social media. One has only to think of the popularity of Facebook with its sly way of allowing us all to engage in continually updating our personal stories, our selves, to an audience of our choosing. But there is other evidence that we are becoming more attuned to treating the self as a story. Consider what can be referred to as the recent memoir craze, which catapulted works in this genre from the hinterlands to best seller lists.* Think of our fascination with characters like Don Draper on Mad Men, who became a different person by telling a new story about himself, a story he continually found himself revising, as he made up other kinds of stories to sell products. Or perhaps most telling for Americans, consider air travel. By the time we finish flying from one coast to another, we learn more than anyone should want to know about the life, the self, of the guy sitting next to us in seat 14B, presented to us as a story.
Nearly eighty years ago Sartre began to see the writing on the wall. He told us that the self is not only a story that we tell ourselves. It is a story that begins in the present, in the life that we are currently leading. However, it involves an illusion, namely, that the story started in the past, in the beginning, perhaps when we were born. This illusion made us feel secure. If we have a story that we believe has one beginning and involves a continuous narrative, it can easily be taken as an artifact of our soul, which is permanent and unchanging. We are durable. We were always the same person.
But what if we are all becoming more like Don Draper, that is, capable of inventing stories, selves, and knowing that we are doing so? It can be fun, after all. Our lives become a form of performance art, one that we seemingly control. Hey, look, at what I have done now! I’m a new me. Now I will share my updated story with my friends on Facebook, and it will become even more real. In addition, God only knows that we are continually offered new ways to reinvent ourselves by those wishing to sell us new products, which will involve new self images. We must also be ready to adapt, and adopt a new self, as the market calls on us to change jobs and learn different skills.
What a strange situation. We keep calling for people to be responsible in their lives, to own what they have done in the near and distant past, but then we seduce them into becoming different selves, who may feel little need to be held accountable for what was done by another me. This is freedom, is it not?
Is there a price for what Robert Jay Lifton once called the protean self? There is potentially a costly one for certain notions of responsibility. (Who, which self, committed a crime and should be held accountable?) But leaving aside issues of this sort, there is still the kind of price that Gabriel’s song suggests. Carry the flexibility too far and the joy of change is supplanted by an inevitable sense of insecurity. Who will I need to be next? What story will I be telling? (“All that is solid melts into air.”)
We are learning how to change our stories more easily, become new selves–when it fancies us or when we are pressured by circumstance to do so. The danger: we forsake genuine novelty for one damn self after another. We can’t stop. We can’t grow up. “We are in transition, once again.” And once again. And once again….
* On memoir sales, see, for example, “Why Is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing?” By Shirley Hershey Showalter:
Ben Yagoda believes the years 1990–2010 marked the memoir boom period. In Memoir: A History (2009) he writes:
According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of U.S. book sales, total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. Also, memoirs in Britain occupied seven out of ten bestselling nonfiction hardcovers in both 2007 and 2008.
The metaphor that occurs to me is that of sculpting. We started out as rough stone. The s(S)culptor can envision the gorgeous finish but our initial self-image is just stone. Then we, life and others begin to knock off that rough outer and slowly, painfully at times the vision begins to emerge. That which surrounded the finished statue was only roughness to be removed by fully engaging the life, the people and the opportunities around us. The sculpting is actually a never ending process as the vision is refined. And like a stone statue, our presence lives on in the lives of those we touch and fully engage long after the chisel is laid down.