Finding the "Self"

[ted id=1193]
Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself
Thandie Newton

In her TED talk, speaker Thandie Newton speaks of a sense of oneness that newborns feel, and how she believes it becomes lost in the formation of the individual’s sense of identity. We go from an innate state of belief in oneness with everything to evaluating reality through distinctions and separations. In our early years, we are provided countless “facts” about ourselves, both from personal experiences and external input, and weave them together to form a projection of our individuality, a “vehicle for navigate our social world”. However, she also points out that it’s a projection based on other people’s own projections (and so on and so on), and questions whether the sense of self we have is the person we really are, want to, or even should be. Having recently concluded a years-long battle with my own identity crisis, I was immediately engaged by how effectively she was able to verbalize thoughts and feelings I’d long since grappled with but never seemed able to sufficiently capture in my own words.

So this whole interaction with self and identity was a very difficult one for me growing up. The self that I attempted to take out into the world was rejected over and over again. And my panic at not having a self that fit, and the confusion that came from my self being rejected, created anxiety, shame and hopelessness, which kind of defined me for a long time.

This was the root cause for a lot of the mental & emotional turmoil I’ve carried over the years. I formed my sense of self in the warmth of a loving family environment. I grew up believing that good things happen to good people and aware of the fact that the things that generally comprised a “good person” were also things that made me feel good about myself. So when the years passed and I found myself at end of a continuous series of betrayals and abandonments, I started to see myself as an embodiment of rejection, never to fit in and never to be good enough for anyone in any capacity.

I grew up on the coast of England in the ’70s. My dad is white from Cornwall, and my mom is black from Zimbabwe. Even the idea of us as a family was challenging to most people. But nature had its wicked way, and brown babies were born. But from about the age of five, I was aware that I didn’t fit. I was the black atheist kid in the all-white Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly, and my self was rooting around for definition and trying to plug in. Because the self likes to fit, to see itself replicated, to belong. That confirms its existence and its importance.

I grew up in San Diego, CA in the late ’80s and the ’90s. My dad is first-generation Chinese American from Oakland, and my mom an illegal alien from Zacatacas, Mexico. To go into the circumstances of my upbringing in sufficient detail would be a lengthy endeavor that goes beyond the scope of this entry. Suffice to say, the result my history with childhood & development served to reinforce the archetype of “the perpetual outsider”. On top of juggling the duality of being my “Mexican” self when at home with my mom and my “Chinese” self when left with my dad and his family, there were also the constant changes in my primary home environment to deal with. When my mom relocated us to a house on the other side of the US-Mexico border, that virtually eliminated my ability to “belong” anywhere.

But in retrospect, the destruction of my self was so repetitive that I started to see a pattern. The self changed, got affected, broken, destroyed, but another one would evolve – sometimes stronger, sometimes hateful, sometimes not wanting to be there at all. The self was not constant. And how many times would my self have to die before I realized that it was never alive in the first place?

Throughout my 20’s, I tried time and time again to get past these issues. And I did, many times over. Yet, each success was soon followed by a relapse into that personal darkness. With every return, climbing out became subsequently harder, wrestling not only once again with matters previously thought put to rest but also new ones that had cropped up — one’s early 20’s are when life is supposed to be filled with constant growth and change. But each repurposed version of myself I took out into the world to try to find a place to fit in ultimately ended up a lonely failure. In 2011, the weight of all that came crashing down on me. My “self” lost its cohesion, and all those different personalities I’d adopted over the years seemingly became their own individual identities, fighting to assert claim to my true identity. Or in a less dramatic manner of phrasing, my mind started working overtime and became crippled by fear. Everything that got processed in my mind got worked over multiple times, through the outlooks and attitudes I’ve held throughout various stages in my life, many of which directly contradict with others. As a result, even the most basic decision making became extremely onerous. Asking myself “what would I do” would yield multiple options, and I couldn’t identify the choices that aligned with my “real” self. So I went into seclusion to sort things out, to work through everything without any external influence. I expected that time would finally finish the job and complete the healing process…but time doesn’t just heal; it also changes.

And when I realized and really understood that my self is a projection and that it has a function, a funny thing happened. I stopped giving it so much authority. I give it its due. I take it to therapy. I’ve become very familiar with its dysfunctional behavior. But I’m not ashamed of my self. In fact, I respect my self and its function. And over time and with practice, I’ve tried to live more and more from my essence. And if you can do that, incredible things happen.

For me, that realization came in the form of some very abstract rumination in my period of asceticism and self-exile. When I stopped asking myself the question who I was and instead asked what I was, all the mental noise was instantly cleaved by utter clarity. What I was was a walking sack of meat housing a very powerful biological self-aware computer. All the memories, experiences, beliefs, and ideas that comprise my sense of identity are ultimately reduced to a series of projections placed on me from external sources, stored as electrical and chemical impulses in a wrinkly grey cellular mass. One ill-placed blow to the head and my “self” could be wiped from existence, even if I were to live and recover. Reducing all the trauma and the sorrows from the past to such logical and scientific terms removed they power they held, and made them very easy to process and reconcile. Stepping outside my “self” to that degree also let freed me from the crushing abstractions we live with in modern society — familial obligations, wealth expectations, adherence to social mores — and has enabled me to manage conflict and discordance far better. Life becomes a lot easier to navigate when you can trust yourself not to succumb to your own personal biases, and when you begin to gain mental mastery over your emotions the universe loses its ability to make you its bitch.

Let’s live with each other and take it a breath at a time. If we can get under that heavy self, light a torch of awareness, and find our essence, our connection to the infinite and every other living thing. We knew it from the day we were born. Let’s not be freaked out by our bountiful nothingness. It’s more a reality than the ones our selves have created. Imagine what kind of existence we can have if we honor inevitable death of self, appreciate the privilege of life and marvel at what comes next. Simple awareness is where it begins.
Thank you for listening.

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