St. Norbert Times

Gray World



They say college is where you find yourself. Well, through my life there have been two noteworthy transformations of self. The first let’s call “Intuitive Mimicry,” and the second “Skeptical Suspension.” The first transformation took place throughout high school, peaked in early college, and was primed by the innumerable conflicts between the authentic self and society’s perplexing pulse. To make sense of the world I live in, I had to first make sense of the self that lives in the world, but how do I carve out a consistent “me” when I keep getting contradictory feedback from the cultural conglomerate of parents, peers, teachers, and media alike? Am I supposed to be obedient or creatively rebellious? Brutally honest or gentle? Easy-going or earnest? Optimistic or pragmatic? Religious or agnostic? My pleas to others tended to produce vapid replies, not that I should have expected any different as the journeys of men are wildly diverse, but it nevertheless forced an isolating realization that the place most conducive to finding answers was a private retreat to the box between my ears.

Awkwardly muddling through my construction of self, without the help of some clear objective measure to make sense of it all, I ended up affirming whatever values I’d rummaged from my experience that intuitively appealed to my temperament. How did this temperament come to be? Probably through some combination of compliments, criticisms, and genetic structure, and whose assembly was largely underwent without my educated consent—who I was and am, on a deep, emotional level, is largely due to an upbringing I had no control over, and even if I did have control over at least how I responded, I wasn’t always smart enough to think through the implications that my responses would have on the grander development of my temperament.

This is a rough sketch on how I laid the bricks to my identity project: “Brutally honest or gentle? Well, my teachers always complimented me on being kind, so I think that means being gentle is more important. It doesn’t feel right to be brutally honest—that’s not me. The real me, the authentic me, is gentle with others.”

I learned gentleness, like any other value, through mimicking others, and thus the construction of the authentic self was really just a game of intuitive mimicry. The values that I found instinctually agreeable, I claimed as my own, intrinsic to my nature, and I used these to make sense of the world—a sense of right and wrong was whittled out from them. I existed in a medley of conflicting values, but broke from the disorder by stealing away whatever values I found naturally appealing, rejecting contradictory ones, and used what I had scavenged to make black-and-white sense of myself and the world I occupied.

The second transformative move arose from the friction between my authentic self and my reflective self. As confusing as this may sound, the difference between the authentic self and the reflective self is that the reflective self is not constituted by the values I chose to adopt, while the authentic self constructed through “Intuitive Mimicry” was. As I moved through life with a set of firmly held values, such as those embraced in the first transformation, I often found these values forcefully challenged in meaningful ways, and being honest with myself, I was forced into a position of reflection that rejected my values as absolute, which lead to rejecting the world as black and white.

For example, let’s say I claimed religious beliefs as intrinsic to my self. Then I took a couple religious studies or philosophy courses, and I became dubious about an omnipotent, benevolent deity, and instead assumed a set of agnostic beliefs. Then I have a conversation with a religious friend, and find that the spiritual zeal that sprouts from his religious convictions moves him to be a very caring, philanthropic person, and it leaves me feeling utterly disheartened about my agnostic stance. Now I’m put in a position where I’m forced to recognize the value of both contradictory views. Eventually this happens to enough of my beliefs that my authentic self becomes an object of relentless scrutiny, and I become skeptical about all of my beliefs. Just as the authentic self separated from the societal conglomerate, the reflective self separates from the authentic self, and suspends once tightly squeezed beliefs as conditionally valuable according to a context.

This has a profound impact on how I view the world. It’s quite difficult to be judgmental with a skeptical suspension of beliefs, as I realize each person is acting in accordance to some set of beliefs that vary in value across contexts. It’s also much easier to both take criticisms against my authentic self, and it’s easier to give criticisms against another person’s beliefs, even though they may be very dear to that person, because as I become more comfortable in the reflective self the more the authentic self becomes a sort of distant body—just as the societal self was robotic to the authentic self. This is to say, I’m comfortable thinking my beliefs as separate from who I am as a person, and because of this, I’m also in a much better position to entertain a belief without accepting it— a scenario I find myself frequently visiting given this bizarre election season.

This was the point of college for me. Gaining the ability to first move into the reflective self, and then feeling most at home in it, I’ve not only radically changed how I view the world, especially the people in it, but I’ve fundamentally changed the way I view myself, and I don’t think I could ask for much more. Is my life better this way? Can’t say. Is living in a gray world better than a black and white one? To answer “yes” or “no” would be self-contradictory. If anything, I’ve realized how confusing this place is, which at least makes for an interesting ride.