To get away from yourself is difficult. Nature chains your body and your mind. Those that have managed it, through an out-of-body experience or a psychedelic trip, claim to have unique perspectives on life and perhaps they do. But the majority of us stay inside our heads. We view “I” as synonymous with “self.” All of those traits and predispositions, those wiggles and twists of our personalities. They are us. We see no distinction.
And who could be responsible for that self but you? We’re told from childhood to take responsibility for our actions. A plethora of books and television shows teach us that we can improve the self, if only we try hard enough. Become thinner, more intelligent, make more friends. Our politics emphasizes the individual, making choices and flaunting his agency. We are own masters.
So of course when somebody calls you rude, selfish, or ignorant, you get upset. You feel a shot has been cast across your bows, blowing a hole in the side of your ship — seawater flooding in everywhere. Because it must be your fault if you are defective. You’re the one at the wheel. The one that shoulders the blame.
But when we look at how the self comes into being, one experience tumbling upon another upon genes and so on — growing us and changing us — we realize we aren’t built. We aren’t machines that are pieced together. Not by me, you or anybody. We have so little control, almost no hand in the thing at all. When it comes to it, we are all products of luck and circumstance. The strings pulled by unseen forces both from within and without.
When you crawl from the womb, untouched and fresh to the world, you have only your genes. For this short moment, just before the hospital lamp pours down upon your bald little head, whilst you are still being pushed and squeezed towards life — there is only the internal. That which you are born with. Your genetic code.
This defines us in many ways. Intelligence, looks, propensity for happiness. Perhaps even sexual orientation. How much is debatable. But we know these internal forces hold weight. Yet nobody gets a say in which way they push. There is no cosmic bazaar of traits where you can run around gleefully, picking at will. You are born fat or slender, pretty or ugly, short or tall, clever or dumb. You have no choice in the matter. And because you have no choice you bear none of the responsibility. None of the guilt.
Neither did you choose how you were brought up. The most formative years of your life thrust upon you, a ticket in hand, a chance on the merry-go-round. Parents can be kind, cruel and everything in between. Some read books at bedtime, others have terrific arguments. Some even — unfortunately and sadly — beat their children senseless. Then there is the money, the country, the schooling. Social class, contacts and pure good fortune. Innumerable factors pushing and pulling you this way and that. Can we blame a child for his upbringing? No, of course not. None of it was ever his choice. It was all chance, all luck. One big spin of the wheel.
But then you hit 18 and society tells you they’ve flipped a switch. You are now all grown up and you have agency, a reward for making it this far. You move from being the pawn in a cosmic game of chess, being thrust to and fro, to being the player. Finally making moves of your own. Except this is all fallacy. There is no switch to flip. The game will never be yours. Your context and genes will always define you, an echo carrying on throughout the years, ending only with death.
A teenager who forages for scrap in the slums of Delhi does not, on his 18th birthday, decide to become white, western, and moneyed. Context begets context. You can’t leap between trajectories as you please. You’re already on a path, with no way of turning full circle and heading back.
Imagine I put you in a stock car, one of those with a pulley reaching to each of the front wheels. Then I shove you down a hill. You’d have the option to veer left and right — free will if you like — but your trajectory is set. Your crash inevitable. No one would blame you for the eventual wreck, or whoever you took with you. You never chose to ride the car, to feel time’s hand on your back, mercilessly pushing you from birth, through your years and towards death.
And such is life and such is the self. I’m sure you are an amiable, polite, sociable person. The kind of person I’d remember after a party. You make an impression, you have many friends. You probably have a respectable job too. You are lucky. But you deserve no congratulation. Certainly no veneration. You simply spun the giant wheel of fortune, clicking down slower and slower, until it finally stopped over a golden star. I’m in your boat, too, by the way — penning this on a restaurant table overlooking the French Riviera. I’m white, decently educated, and definitely not boasting. Because none of this is my fault. I can’t take the credit, nor the blame.
This notion of self, defined and destined — with only a range in which to maneuver — can be liberating. You can use it as a tool, one to kill worry, nip guilt in the bud. It separates you from the self, it saps away the responsibility you feel for who you are, the guilt of achieving less than others and the egotism that comes with achievement. Of course you can’t just sit around waiting for a celestial hand to sweep you to wherever you’d like to be swept. Your stock car can still veer left and right, remember. You can still walk out of your front door, pursue your desires and find fulfillment. Love and be loved. You can just do it all without guilt. That you can shrug to the floor, to be trod into the dirt.
It can also free us from the worry of definition, an issue synonymous with the modern world. I am a writer, musician, lawyer or secretary, people say. Desperately trying to condense their self down to a word. Such descriptions beg the question, is that all? Surely you are a mother or a brother, a friend and an enemy too. Surely you like all manner of things. No artist paints all day, every day. No accountant fills his eyes only with spreadsheets. Modernity demands singularity and specialisation. The self is the paramount unit. Being part of a group or community is not enough. You must be an individual, a brand — definite and distinct. Oh and marketable of course, that above all else. But if you are mindful of the fact that you play a tiny part in who you are, these worries slip away. Why would you worry about who you are if you have so little control.
Internalize this enough and you start to see yourself as a vessel. All vessels have a shape, one that has been around since the start. Some of us are square, some round and some oval like the other side of a sand smoothed shell. And as you meander through life, little by little, you fill up. The hue of your liquid ever changing, your original shape keeping everything together.
This is all the self is. Shape and liquid. Your genetics will always be there and the things you come into contact with will keep changing you. Or filling you up. But that is all. What else is there to shape us other than DNA and context? The soul perhaps. But even if an essence, outside of physics and time, does exist — do you remember choosing yours?
Creativity is interesting in this regard. That wonderful crash of ideas our minds experience, often while sitting on the toilet or walking the dog. They seems to come from nowhere. Or at least somewhere deep inside of ourselves, somewhere eternal and ineffable. But to interpret this as agency, as a sort of pure thought, is succumbing to illusion. It is again context mixing with genes, this time with such diffusion and subtlety our conscious minds don’t notice.
For instance, if I see somebody else smoking I find myself craving a cigarette. Here is cause and effect, easily noticeable. Ideas, inspiration and all the rest of it are exactly the same. The sources are just more numerous and indeterminable. It is one subconscious train of thought colliding with another and another until you have an incredible pileup, train upon train upon train, broken glass and clanging wheels all over the place. Tiny men pick through the wreckage, fixing and welding until eventually, still down in your subconscious, another train is built. More intricate, subtle and wonderful than all those that crashed to form it. Its engine is lit, it steams down the tracks and flies through a tunnel into your conscious brain — its horn blaring. An idea, seemingly from nowhere.
Sometimes this external self is begrudgingly accepted. For children growing up on sink estates or those who are molested at a young age we recognize there are repercussions that are outside of our control. As inevitable as a ripple through water. Yet we never take it far enough. We still have a justice system that punishes rather than rehabilitates. As if it were a coincidence that most drug dealers come from the same part of town or that violent offenders often experience traumatic upbringings. We punish people out of spite, taking an eye, knowing it will do none of us any good.
Nor are we brave enough to apply this logic to ourselves. We labour under the illusion of agency when actually we are all drifting. Being tugged this way and that through a universe that has bigger things on its mind. Our achievements and our failures barely our own. Embrace this self, one beyond our control, and the guilt and egotism associated with failure and success crumble.
And in its place grows a realization — that it is the duty of the fortunate to care for the unfortunate, as nothing more than luck divides them.