One can only know who he or she truly is when dead. No. Even then essence changes. For who we truly are, or better what we truly are is a nothingness, an emptiness, a potentiality, a spontaneity. We are that which a rock may never be, an openness to the world, capable of not just reaction, but creation.
Even the tree, with her spring blossoms and fiery fall colors, her cold grey winter hibernation, is mere reactivity. Her ‘joy’ and ‘brilliance’ are our projections. The earth itself is mere reactivity.
But we… We are always beyond ourselves. I am a philosopher because I am never satisfied with what I am. The I am that is accepted by people is imposed from the world: I am a doctor, a painter, a father, and so on. Really? That and nothing more?
Sartre tells us that it is from ‘gaze of the other’ that we first gain self-consciousness. This nothing new, as Hegel gave the same story one hundred and forty years prior. To gaze upon a man building a house is go gaze upon a ‘house-builder’. When one realizes he is seen as a ‘house-builder’ he will see himself as a ‘house-builder’; he will make an object of himself. He will act as he believes a house-builder ought to act and the objectification will be reinforced as others see him presenting himself as a ‘house-builder’.
I was good at accounting in high school, and for this was reinforced as an accountant. My future then was as being an accountant, and the significance of my past was that it had led to accounting. If I were to write a short autobiography then, it would have included the lessons in fractions and division give to me by my brother when I was six and he twelve; my being singled out through perfect standardized test scores in grade and middle schools; and so on.
But now the story I tell myself, of myself, is that of a philosopher, or a Buddhist. It is still only a story, and when I forget this I cease to be spontaneous, open, creative. I become an object and merely react.
It is like a small death though, to see that my story is a fabrication, it is not who I really am. In fact there is no story for who or what I really am. This is shocking, truly frightening when I consider for how long and in how many ways I have deceived myself and how thoroughly others deceive themselves. I am reminded of the Buddhist teaching that all suffering is a result of asmi-mana, the conceit ‘I am‘.
In Missoula I am so many things that I am easily overwhelmed, incapable, in fact, of being all of the things that I have made myself. In Bristol I was very little, and thus capable of spontaneity. In the face of my conceit, drinking is but one strategy, numbing the discordance temporarily so as to carry on. A better strategy is to see the falsehood of my many self-conceptions, to realize that I am not all that I say I am. But again this is like a little death, a loss of the story, or at least of the force of the story. Can this be done without concocting a new story in its place? Perhaps all we are left with is story-telling, social adaptation is just telling a better story about oneself and the world. Philosophy is just this according to Derrida, a ‘white mythology.’
Finally, here is an apparent disagreement between Sartre and Buddhism. For Sartre we can do no better than to make this realization, to bring the ego out of the darkness from which it may dominate us. But in Buddhism the result of the realization, when the realization is both cognitive and affective, is the dissolution of the ego. Can we live, do we want to live, without a story of ourselves which we believe without knowing we believe? A story which seems to be just brute fact. A self which is, even if knowable, unassailable, impervious to the corrosive, mortifying effects of knowledge.