The triad of the self

Be honest, how many of those time-wasting quizzes have you taken in the quest to pigeonhole yourself? How many of the conflicting answers sound more or less like you? Have you ever thought (or heard someone else exclaim) “I wish someone would just tell me who I am so I know what to DO with my life!”

Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos may be summed up as a satiric remark upon the failure of the self to grasp itself — you, the most intelligent being in the universe, don’t even know who you are concretely enough to answer the questions provided in the “quiz” format of his “self-help” book. Me, for example, I often wanted to respond “all of the above? None of the above? Wait… what was the question again?” Percy contends that there are frameworks within which the self can operate and find a place: philosophies, for example, of relationship and hierarchy (Judeo-Christian, Eastern) or of superiority (the scientist or artist who is above it all). To this I might add culture, because the way a Japanese underling sees himself in the world is different than how an American underling sees himself in the world. Indeed, this philosophic outlook within which one is raised (and ultimately modifies, but never quite escapes) seems to influence more of one’s life than anything else.

Personality isn’t something that Percy really gets into (at least so far; I’m about halfway through the book). In fact, in some of the examples he gives, you get the feeling that he almost thinks personality is a construct, mirrored from how the world perceives you. But I’m going to assume that there are certain leanings, quirks, shortcomings, traits and strengths innate within a person, and these even may be generalized into some sort of systematic personality “type.” This likely does not directly result from one’s upbringing or philosophy or culture, but it will probably be influenced by it. Certainly, how extreme these traits are and what one does with them will be influenced by one’s larger philosophy.

So, according to my own theory about how the self sets parameters to live within, overarching philosophy (religion, culture and so on) influences how traits (personality, preference) manifest themselves; both influence the choice of occupation. I mean occupation in the broad sense — not just your job or line of work, but your pastimes and the people you enjoy. Hence, despite a self that can be placed on a sliding scale from minus infinity to infinity (according to Percy), self still falls within a tidy parameter, defined in part by what one cannot reasonably be. One cannot reasonably be a Buddhist assassin, an Amish runner of illegal gold, a danger-averse Navy Seal, or a ballroom dancer with two left feet. And, oddly or not, when you describe yourself, you use the language of this triad: “I’m a relaxed, happy, Mormon mountain-biking enthusiast,” or “I’m a reserved Chinese woman in the grad department at State University, and I enjoy cooking.”

But this still assumes that one has consistent philosophies and traits. Assume, then, that your philosophy is an industrious Western project-oriented ideal: you see yourself as worth something when you are accomplishing something; you relate to the world through action. Your personality, for example, could be A. that of a self-motivated choleric, consistently driven, with a penchant for working with your hands, or B. inconsistent and unconnected, with bursts of extremism in every direction. Personality A will decide to be a carpenter, a manager, a construction worker; will have a standard schedule and probably want a standard day. He will be tempted to be a workaholic but may be saved through sheer exhaustion. Personality B will probably change jobs numerous times, get nothing linear accomplished (though many things done), and, when discouraged, will dislike himself and the world for it.

At this point things may start to reverse themselves. Something’s not right with the way I’m functioning; is it my job, my personality, my philosophy, or what? After changing jobs or hobbies enough times, the questions become more and more far-reaching. Can I change my personality? Can I change my philosophy? The answer, at least to some degree, is yes, at least if the change goes deep enough. If you change your philosophy, and truly believe this new way of relating to the world, the change filters over to your strengths and weaknesses and then/concurrently down to your lifestyle choices.

This is easier said than done, however, and it’s much more efficient in the short-term to just try some new novelty in the hope that this will explain/fix who you are.

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