This seems to be the most horrifying trauma of modernity. Desperate, sometimes hysterical attempts to answer this deceptively innocent-looking question has produced some of history’s most destructive terrorists and tyrants and many of the world’s greatest artists and political leaders. Some, like T.E. Lawrence, write their personal identity quest across the sky in blazing letters that inflame an entire region.
The increasingly absurd knots into which we tie our everyday experience in order to project an idealized self, in writing, in our face-to-face interactions and increasingly through social media, are generating an alarming degree of dysfunctionality and mental pain. People use technological crutches like Facebook and Photoshop (vacations full of sunsets and beautiful or picturesque people, devoid of rain and misery) to design a virtual world in which they star, but which has little to do with their day-to-day empirical reality. And yet the more distance between the actual reality and the virtual reality we design for ourselves, the less we know what makes us who we are. Writers, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, and many other artists have given us a rich body of texts that try to grapple with that quintessential quest. In some cases, they attempt to o er answers. In other cases they simply show us the worlds within worlds that open up for us when we try to peel back the outer layers of the onion that is our self. Is there really a core self? Something that makes us as an “individual,” an entity that can no longer be subdivided into further component parts? Unless today’s generation of students is far more mature than we were when we entered college, I suspect that many of you are as much obsessing about these questions as we were. So here is one suggestion that might help in this often anxiety-provoking quest: instead of focusing on an answer, put all of your energies into looking at how others ask the question: interrogating texts, data, public movements, works of art, public political statements, and even national debates about the underlying anxiety and horror of not knowing who we are. And then talk about what you have found: to your friends, to your professors, or to me.
– Michael E. Geisler, Ph.D.