Lon K. Montag Asks: “Who am I?”

Most of us are probably aware now of the shooting that took place at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.  Twelve dead.  Fifty-eight injured.

Three men lost their lives last week as they shielded others from the gunfire coming their way.  The selflessness of these young men is getting some good traction in the media and I’m glad to see it, because as terrible as this event is, and as much as it reveals the destructive capacities inhering in man (as I discussed a few weeks back; see “What Horrifies You?”), it also reveals the courage and compassion man is capable of.

I wonder sometimes how I would stack up if subject suddenly to such a violent test.  And that’s no easy question, because, to answer it, I have to try to step back and make an honest assessment of myself; I have to ask myself, “Who am I?”  And would the person I am be courageous enough to do what’s necessary when the time comes?  How can I know?

It all begins with that one question: “Who am I?”  You don’t need to be an amnesiac to legitimately ask this of yourself; it’s no simple question.  We, often unreflectively, think that we know who we are; we think that the things we consciously tell ourselves about ourselves, and about the world, are true.  But perception is interpretation; and no interpretation is infallible.  We might suppose that there’s some coherent, easily accessible, and definite version of who each of us is.  But there are forces lurking beneath our streams of consciousness which we’re hardly aware of in our everyday lives.  Plato, thousands of years ago, gave us a tri-partite theory of the soul in which he stated we have emotional, appetitive, and rational forces inside of us, always competing for control; and though these forces are all a part of us, it is reason which is truly human (and is thus represented, metaphorically, by a tiny man), whereas the appetites are portrayed as a Chimera or Cerberus (the former being a creature with the heads of a serpent, lion, and goat; the latter being a three-headed dog), and emotions as a lion (588)).  Freud made our conscious life subservient to subconscious sexual and appetitive forces.  Jung also bestowed upon our subconscious a dominant role in determining our actions, though he was concerned less with sexual and appetitive forces and more with the subconscious’ use of archetypal, mythological, cultural, and individual symbology to steer our conscious selves into more adaptive behavior.  Freud’s thesis is largely unpersuasive.  But the possibility that our actions and lives are determined to an indeterminate extent by sub- or un-conscious forces is a viable one.  And what about other biological and social determining factors?  To what extent are my actions my own?  Can they be my own if they’re influenced or determined by outside forces?

Already, we’re seeing that the questions of who I am, who you are, who we are, have no easy or obvious solutions.

And it’s no coincidence that this heinous shooting has given us the opportunity to muse on what man is; on who he is.  Flannery O’Connor said, of her most famous story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that, “[I]n my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader…”  (The story, for those unfamiliar with it, is about the vicious murdering of a thoroughly obnoxious vacationing family by an escaped bandit.)  O’Connor’s idea here seems to be that in our everyday banal way of being, we’re abstracted from the world; she suggests that the reality of life is obscured by our jaded, oblivious, and myopic modes of perception.  One of the few ways, O’Connor states, for us to regain that visceral connection to the world is to be jarred into it—and violence can do the trick.

But interestingly enough, it’s not just the world we tend to obscure—we make our true selves opaque as well.  O’Connor says that “[T]he man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…”  So violence, in causing us to suddenly confront the reality of the world, also causes us to confront the truest nature of our selves (for we truly reveal ourselves when forced to confront the real world):  Do we value another’s life above our own before the muzzle of a gun?  Do we react with non-violent resistance?  Do we fight?  Or perhaps use our words to try to talk our foe down?  Or maybe even run?  There are many options available to us in any given situation, and the viability of each option will obviously vary depending on one’s circumstances (there are no two ways about this fact); but, taking into account context, we can see that O’Connor is suggesting that the way we react to violence reveals to us our real selves—as she says, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…”  (The notion that our true selves are hidden deep within us, obscured by the soot of everyday life, is a common one.  One of the more striking metaphors which comes to my mind is courtesy of Huston Smith.  In his discussion of Hinduism, he says, “Underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss…[It] is buried under the almost impenetrable mass of distractions, false assumptions, and self-regarding instincts…A lamp can be covered with dust and dirt to the point of obscuring its light completely” (Smith 21-2).  Smith goes on to show how, according to Hinduism, various yogas and the creation of positive karma go a long way toward cleansing the lamp.  I want to note that O’Connor, as a Catholic, says, “This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”  Her point is well taken and not mutually exclusive with said idea being implicit in a plurality of worldviews.)

To return to the point at hand: we hide from the world by shutting most of it out and /or by telling ourselves stories about it; and we hide from ourselves through similar means.  Nietzsche comments on this phenomenon: “‘Unfree will’ is mythology: in real life it is only a question of strong and weak wills.  It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself when a thinker detects in every ‘causal connection’ and ‘psychological necessity’ something of compulsion, exigency, constraint, pressure, unfreedom…” (BGE 51).  Nietzsche is saying here that there are those of us who convince ourselves that, in truth, there are deterministic physical, psychological, biological, or social laws which, if appealed to, explain our behavior and absolve us of our failings— and those who suppose so are the weak-willed who have neither the strength to master themselves nor the strength to even confront their own weaknesses; thus they tell exculpatory stories.  And this is no surprise, Nietzsche says, for we have an inclination to strive “for appearance and the superficial”; and to confront and shatter these comforting illusions contains “already a drop of cruelty” (BGE 160).  Jean-Paul Sartre says something similar: “To those who hide their complete freedom from themselves out of a spirit of seriousness or by means of deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards” (58).  Sartre says that in our everyday lives, everything we do is the result of a choice; thus, our actions reflect our character.  So in choosing to hide our nature from ourselves, which is itself an action, we are cowards; and insofar as we confront our nature, we are courageous (in addition to whatever else we might be, as exhibited by our other actions) (50).  We can find these ideas reflected in pop culture: in a movie called The Brave One, a cop, played by Terrence Howard, reflects that during investigations, even the lies people tell can be helpful in discerning the truth because, “[L]ies tell you things too…Because people tell them for a reason.”  Even in untruth, we reveal ourselves to discerning eyes.

But maybe there are some things, no matter how honest we try to be with ourselves, we can’t know.  We find that same cop, in The Brave One, later relaying the details of a shooting to his friend Erica; and, as his story unfolds, he realizes she might be the perpetrator he’s after.  After this realization, he gives her a subtle warning: “When I was a rookie,” he says, “I used to give myself this test.  I would ask myself, ‘If there was someone I knew that had committed a crime, would I have the fortitude to put them away?’…Someone close to me, like the best friend I could ever hope to have…I always hoped that I would have the courage and the dedication to say, ‘Yes.’”  His friend, Erica, asks, “And do you?”  He fixes her with a steely gaze and says, “I do.”  (Later he’s put to this very test.  I’ll leave the outcome to your imagination.)  Regardless of the outcome, the fact remains: it takes courage to be honest with oneself about one’s self.  Sometimes you have to ask yourself the hard questions whose answers you can’t know for sure.  And other times you have to look at the everyday way you live your life to know who you truly are (even if what’s revealed is contrary to what you thought you knew).

Maybe it’s true that there are some things about ourselves that we can’t know until we’re put to the test.  But I know that people make mistakes; sometimes who we are isn’t revealed by the actions we take before we’ve had the chance to think them through; and on the other hand, sometimes such actions reveal just what they purport to.  (Case in point: in the movie High Noon, retiring Marshal Kane stood starkly alone in the face of the possibility that he would have to confront four vicious gunmen, bent on shooting him down in the streets.  Kane sought the help of the townspeople whose protection he’d devoted himself to for years, and not one of them would stand with him, because they were afraid.  Kane then sought help from his friend, the former Marshal Howe, who also refused him.  Howe, in remorse and resignation, said: “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care.”  Maybe this is the case with some of us; our first responses are the truest ones and the rationalizations and socialized behavior which come later are the farces; but for others, maybe we’re more than the fearfulness which first rears its head—we only need a minute to fight it down to do what we know is right.  Neither generalization seems to have the strength to speak for all of us.)

But I don’t think that we have to wait for trial and tribulation to figure out who we are or what matters to us…Of the free man, Nietzsche said, “The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, this power over oneself and fate, has sunk into his lowest depth and has become instinct, the dominant instinct” (GM 37).  It has become his conscience.  Have the fortitude to own your actions, to acknowledge your power over yourself and thus over your fate.  Have the courage (and if necessary, the cruelty) to take a look around, not just at the world, but at yourself and your actions, and see what you find; because we shouldn’t, and in fact don’t, have to wait around until we’re put to the test to ask, “Who am I?”

  • Jordan, Neil.  The Brave One.  Perf. Foster, Jodie and Howard, Terrence.  Warner Bros. (2007).
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil.  Tr. Hollingdale, R.J.  Penguin Books (1990).
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich.  On the Genealogy of Morality.  Trs. Clark, Maudemarie and Swensen, Alan J.  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (1998).
  • O’Connor, Flannery.  “On Her Own Work,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  Ed. Fitzgerald, Sally and Robert.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1969).  Pp. 107-18.
  • Plato.  The Republic.  Eds. Cohen, S. Marc; Curd, Patricia; and Reeve, C.D.C.  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc (2005).
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul.  “The Humanism of Existentialism” in Essays in Existentialism.  Citadel Press (1993).
  • Smith, Huston.  The World’s Religions.  HarperCollins (1991).
  • Zimmerman, Fred.  High Noon.  Perf. Cooper, Gary and Kelly, Grace.  Stanley Kramer Productions (1952).

All original content copyright 2012 by Lon K. Montag: Excerpt freely, but please acknowledge the source.

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