434. Identity and the meaning of life
This piece is inspired by an interview with the Flemish psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter[i]. In his practice he finds that people often suffer from a sense that their life has little meaning. Mark Fisher used the expression ‘the primordial sense of worthlessness’, Jenny Turner called it ‘the dreadful hole in the place of self-belief’[ii]. Here, I want to connect this with my discussion, in this blog, of identity. I propose that the sense of a lack of meaning goes together with a feeling of a loss of identity.
In item 419 of this blog I proposed that generally, in ontology, the essence of an object, which constitutes its identity, is its capacity to adopt or develop new qualities, during its existence, in interaction with other objects. This potential is open to new relations with new objects, but is also constrained, by its inner composition and coherence of elements, requirements for continued existence (homeostasis of the body), and by conditions in the environment, such as laws of nature and conduct and institutions (laws and regulations, organisations, language, educational facilities, job markets, and access to hem), which both enable and constrain further development.
Now, for human beings I would characterise the meaning of life as lying in the development and utilization of that potential, as the essence of oneself. That gives a feeling of making something of one’s life, of ‘going somewhere’, along a unique path of life. Especially when one feels that one is contributing to something beyond or larger than oneself. I proposed this before (in item 183 of this blog, 2015) in my definition of happiness as a combination of ‘sense and purpose’. Sense in contributing to something beyond oneself, corresponding with the notion of ‘transcendence’, and pleasure in doing that by utilizing one’s potential, developing and celebrating one’s talents.
In not doing that, I propose, one feels a sense of meaninglessness together with a sense of a loss of identity, in disregarding, not using one’s potential, leaving it fallow, or worse: the feeling of having no potential.
Developing and utilizing potential requires effort, commitment, and resilience, the ability to deal with setbacks, disappointments, accepting intervals of unhappiness. De Wachter also noted the lack of acceptance of that.
There are so many distractions that require less effort and yield less risk of disappointment. Here one goes for pleasure, or ease, to the neglect of purpose. This can be in addiction, recreation, seeking comfort in the echo chambers of social media, or idolatry, grasping an idol for an identity by proxy. Recreation turns into lack of creation. Mark Fisher called it ‘depressive hedonia’.[iii]
Producing, creating, establishing something, together with others, gives direction, purpose, and builds identity.
Concerning idolatry, I have to be careful. Earlier in this blog (item 99, 2013) I was positive about the value of role models, as yielding an ‘exemplary cause’, a leading example, of conduct: letting oneself be inspired by an iconic sportsman, politician, scientist, and the like. The point about that it that it is active, not basking in another’s glory, but taking it up as a challenge to develop oneself. In its passive form it surrenders itself to the idol, replaces oneself with it.
The notion of ‘potential’ is a very broad one. What does it entail more concretely? Here I use inspiration from a review of a book by Jules Montague[iv]
Does memory constitute identity, as many people seem to think? Development potential is certainly formed, in part, by previous experience, but that would have such effects even when not consciously remembered. Also, memory is notoriously misleading, and memories that others have of oneself count as well.
Personal identity is a repertoire of character traits, propensities, talents, views and convictions that constitute potential.
As indicated above, realization and further development of potential requires courage and resilience, the ability to deal with disappointment and failure, and, I would add, curiosity, dedication and commitment, in other words ‘thymos’, spiritedness (see item 420).
Since for people realization and development of potential is to a large extent a product of interaction with others, they require morality, as noted by Montague, since that guides interaction or inhibits it. It requires openness to the other person as a source, as also noted by de Wachter, who was inspired by Levinas (as I was, see items 61 and 62, 2012).
Finally, these features of identity get expressed in habitual conduct, in ‘habitus’, with characteristic gestures and expressions, forming the face of identity. With that, Montague argues, even in Alzheimer not all traces of identity are lost.
[i] In the Volkskrant, 30 March 2019.
[ii] Jenny Turner, 9 May 2019, London review of Books.
[iv] By Ellen de Visser, in Volkskrant 30 March 2019, in a review of Jules Montague, ‘Lost and found’, 2019.