Could it be that the modern world has stripped our lives of meaning?
Has the emergence of the ‘cult of individuality’ ironically deprived us of the things that give us the very foundation we need to be strong as individuals?
Time was, when a person was asked who they were, they gave their trade, their family name, or their social class. Children were raised with the family trade, following in their parents’ footsteps. If they were better off, they were raised to identify with their family, and everything they did reflected on the family name. If you were part of the gentry, or worked the land, your identity was linked to the land and/or the title you held – or aspired to. From the word go, for most children there was never a time when they didn’t think of themselves as part of something larger. You see how strongly that tradition is built into us when the first question someone asks is ‘What do you do?’. Even further back, identity was the tribe you were born or adopted to. Again, you were part of something larger.
Fast forward and the family is shrunk down to one or two parents and the children. Ties beyond that are weaker, even to extended family, and the few cultures left with a sense of family identity that extends beyond this are under assault by the concept of ‘immediate family’ being the norm. Land ownership is tenuous, relying on constant payments of rates to a faceless government administration, if not also an equally faceless financial institution. Certainly nothing you can rely on for your identity there. Briefly as you go through the education process you get to identify with your school, maybe your sports team, but then you finish and are thrown out into the world with no further claim to either. Is it any wonder youth gangs are on the increase?
Trades and the few permanent professions (doctor, lawyer etc) pick up a few people, and funnily enough I don’t see a lot of them browsing the self-help aisles alongside me, but for the rest of us we’re channelled into jobs that we use to define ourselves, but which have less security or permanency to them every year. Even the jobs out there change so rapidly from year to year, that within 5 years many job titles will be extinct, and a whole new raft of them will exist – with competition fierce to win them.
The other ‘accepted’ path is to get yourself into a committed relationship, build your own family and/or family name, and take your identity from that. But with divorce rates and the modern attitude to breakup (it’s almost expected to happen at some stage) you really can’t get any sense of permanence there either. Not surprising, if two people who don’t know who they are themselves, each expect the other to help. If you haven’t got the solution for yourself, it would have to be almost sheer fluke if you were able to help someone else find it.
So if you’re a normal person, in a normal nuclear family, holding down a normal job, what is permanent enough in your life, solid enough for you to build the foundation of your identity on?
For most, Nothing.
Well, actually, that’s not true. There is one thing permanent, and that’s you.
Unfortunately, as part of the socialisation and training process to turn you into a productive job worker, you’ve been taught never to rely on yourself, but to seek approval from ‘experts’ and ‘authority’. You have to come up with the right answer, as given and decided by the teacher. You have to read other people’s books, and be able to spout their words. You graduate to tertiary education and any ideas you want to put forward have to be solidly supported by as large a list as you can build of other people who’ve said the same thing, or something supporting your idea. Nothing you come up with is valid, in and of itself. YOU aren’t valid, in and of yourself.
So you grow to adulthood never feeling secure. You think of your identity as something hidden which has to be discovered, something someone else will have to point out to you, and the search to find it fills all the time not taken by the job you can’t rely on.
There’s a magnet on my fridge that says “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
Take a moment and think what difference it would make if that were true? What if you could stop looking outside yourself for approval, and start building yourself into the person you want to be, or relaxing into who you already are. Somewhere inside you, there’s a bit that’s learnt to stay hidden, since it’s ‘unauthorised’ – that’s where your light shines true. If you need me to, I give you full permission. Go ahead and let it free.