Synthesizing The Self
The origin of our sense of who we are takes place in relationships and social settings. Understanding what we want in those places helps us to know who we want to be.
The Origin of Identity
In a conversation recently, I made the comment that I do not believe that our sense of identity starts within us. Instead, the origin of our sense of identity is a product of our relationships, beginning with our mothers. I used to jokingly say when asked where I grew up that I was born in a hospital to be close to my mother. I know it is a lame joke, but it is true. We begin life in that intimate relationship. We fix our attention immediately on her face, her voice, and, for many children the breast of our mother. In those first moments, weeks, and months, the close touch of a parent and maybe an older brother or sister begins the process of forming the child’s identity.
Having been involved with a children’s home for two decades, I see some children who arrive in an isolated emotional state. Traumatized by parents who neglected them or treated them harshly. Over time, living in an environment that models what a healthy family is like, they begin to discover their true selves. It is one of the reasons that I always have hope for the future. To see what I have seen, you would too.
To understand why these relationships matter, I recommend spending a few hours watching Mark Laita’s Soft White Underbelly interviews with people at the margins of society. For most of us, we never develop relationships with people who are homeless, addicted to Fentanyl, were sex trafficked as a child, or are making a living as a sex worker. Mark Laita’s stories indicate how a person’s identity is formed or deformed based on the social structure of first their family of origin, and later their social relationships.
One interview I watched recently was of a 21-year-old woman who is a drug addict. She grew up in a home in North Carolina where both her parents were heavy drug users. At the age of sixteen, her father left, her drug use grew, and soon she left and went to Los Angeles. In the interview, she speaks about how much she loves the feeling she gets being on drugs. Yet, now she is pregnant. She freely admits that she has to make a choice between her unborn child and her drug use. For her, it is a life-defining decision between her own self-gratification and the health of her child. The same choice her parents made or did not make two decades ago with her.
Watching these interviews helps me see how deeply important the traditional, nuclear family is to the development of a child. On Mark’s YouTube page, you’ll find story after story of tragic childhoods because one or both of the parents failed to provide a loving, supportive home. The number of young women who start a life of prostitution at the age of 12 or 13 is staggering. This is the Soft White Underbelly of the modern consumer world where identity is established by one’s social utility.
One of the impressions that I leave with is how heroic many parents are who raise their children by themselves. Many of them overcome this disadvantage by sacrificing their own gratification to provide for their children. This is a choice that has to be made every day. For as I have seen and been told about, there is an ever-present temptation to become bitter and cynical because of the sacrifice of caring for a child or an invalid spouse, never feeling the level of appreciation that is justified.
Our identity is formed through the relationships that we have in these social relationships. This is the life context of our growth as persons. We are transformed from dependent infants at birth into, hopefully, emotionally mature, high-functioning adults. We hope or try to be the person capable of establishing a social environment at home and in the world where people can discover who they are as their true selves.
I am convinced that there is a true self in each of us waiting to be discovered, nurtured, and ultimately celebrated for the impact of our lives. The old question of development as to whether ”Is it nature or nurture?” is the wrong one. Rather, how can we synthesize the individual and our social environments so that we have an opportunity to realize our true selves?
A Thought-Provoking Question
Dr. Barbara Kleeb, a physician and a coach to polymaths posted a thought-provoking query on her LinkedIn page. Here’s a portion of her question
“What a waste!
A psychologist, who was a friend, said that about me. I could have done so much more with the talents that I have. I was at this moment just a leading doctor in a hospital. But I was gathering the knowledge that I have now to help others like me as a polymath advisor and coach.
"What a waste" could be said about many polymaths at a given moment. They could be so much more and do so much more, but they are not asked to. For that, they need to be recognized. It isn't the norm to have jobs for polymaths. HR, assisted by AI are filtering polymaths out because they don't fit a task or job description. …
Now, this is a question to decision-makers in business, whether it is C level or HR or learning and development: Do you know whether you have geniuses in your business who are wasting 95% of their capacity working for you? Are you aware of who they are and how you can make them achieve what they could and also would want to?”
This is the flip side of Mark Laita’s broken people living at the margins of society. Dr. Kleeb’s subjects are at the other end of the spectrum as bright, accomplished people, yet some also live at the margins of a society that doesn’t know how to deal with exceptional people. However, in both settings, the thing that may be missing is a social structure that provides a way to recognize the needs and potential of people.
I’ve told the story of Berkley Tulloch in other settings. A young man traumatized by the loss of his wife and son in an automobile accident. A PhD student in philosophy at the time, his loss devastated him to the point that when I met him he was a homeless alcoholic living on the streets of Atlanta. I was the community minister in a local Presbyterian church. Berkley and I immediately bonded over our shared love for our university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It provided a sufficient ground for a young minister and a man of the streets over a decade older to build a relationship of mutual trust and benefit. Berkley taught me how to look at people like those that Mark Laita interviews as broken persons seeking healing.
About six months into our relationship, Berkley asked to be baptized. At a service that took place for office workers downtown at noon on Wednesdays, I baptized him. It was an important step forward for Berkley as he began to be released from the trauma of his loss.
A few months later, he came to me and said that he was ready to go home. I put him on a bus to Raleigh expecting never to hear from him again. A year later he called me. He had checked himself into the recovery unit at the state hospital. Eventually he ended up at the home of one of his brothers. He called to let me know he was okay and was going to go help people like himself. That was the last I heard from him. Twenty years later, after writing about his story in a former weblog of mine, one of his brothers reached out to me to let me know the rest of Berkley’s story. He remained sober the rest of his life. He had moved to Charlotte to work as a truck driver for the Salvation Army. He ultimately died of a heart attack a couple of years after I had last talked to him.
Was Berkley Tulloch’s life a waste? It was certainly tragic. He certainly missed the opportunity to teach students about the world of philosophy. My initial comment to Dr. Barb’s story was this.
“Waste is not a judgment about a person, but rather the representation of the context in which the judgment is made.”
My relationship with Berkley Tullock changed my life. He was the living manifestation that a person beaten down to the level of a street urchin, who through the support of one person, can find the capacity to pick himself up and become a contributing member of a community. Berkley’s sense of identity changed over time because of the real-world context of his life. At one point in time, he was a doctoral student with a wife and son. Then, he was a man lost, alone in his sorrow on the streets of a city. He meets a young minister in a parking lot, and a bond that defined both of them, gave us just enough to form a relationship that gave both of them meaning for the remainder of our lives. This is the intersection between nature and nurture. Our lives are the synthesis of the two.
The Synthetic Shift in Personal Identity
The question of personal identity resides in a binary trap. On the one hand, there is the individualist notion of identity. You can be anything you want. Ultimately, if pursued uncritically, narcissistic behaviors develop that can isolate a person as their sense of self-importance allows for no challenge to the superiority of their self-understanding.
The other threat is an identity born from social conformity. This may be the greatest impact of modern consumerist culture. We are seduced to believe that certain products or ideas represent the best we can be. So, we invest our lives, our money, our relationships, and our careers in fulfilling the symbolic image of that representation.
In the exchange that took place at Dr. Barb’s LinkedIn post, I remarked that what I have experienced in life has granted me a level of freedom that I don’t see in many people. She asked me to elaborate. Here is what I would have posted if the word limits at LinkedIn didn’t constrain comments of depth.
To state it in simple terms. My identity is not defined by who I am like or who am not like. My identity is not even some fixed characterization. There is a deep philosophical discussion behind this perception that is worth having.
One way to understand it is by utilizing Iain McGilchrist's two hemispheres of the brain description. I am very much right-brained and have been since childhood. It means that I see things that other people do not. While in college, I realized that I had a kind of emotional sensitivity that helped me stand apart in social situations. I am aware of things that in the past I could not quantify. Today, I can.
Along with this right brain sensitivity, I have this deep curiosity that has fed my need to learn and discover the world since I was a child. The irony is that it didn’t translate into an interest in accumulating advanced degrees. I am a bookhound and a culture junkie. Feeding off these differences has resulted in the development of my left brain capacity. I have a much more synthesized perspective as a result.
I see this in two ways. One is in the synthesizing of information that would not normally be treated in this way. Such as how to hold in tandem a belief in a transcendent creator God with the more-or-less reductionistic nature of modern science. I have a decades-long interest in the intersection of religion and science.
The other way is seeing analytical patterns of behavior that synthesized my right-brain intuition with left-brain characterizations that can be universally applied. My Circle of Impact model of leadership was born from seeing the patterns of behavior related to ideas, relationships, and the structure of organizations. My analytical development has created a sense of personal groundedness that has allowed my big-picture sensibility to become not only useful in my relationships with other people, but provide me the skills to connect with people of other cultures globally.
As I have been reading McGilchrist's The Matter With Things, I find it to be like the annotated footnotes of my life. It is all very familiar, not strange or new. Much of this development has reached a point of consolidation over the past six to eight months. As a result, I have discovered greater freedom is to live out the next chapter of my life's story.
Creating Communities for Identity Formation
In Synthesizing Time and Space, I also wrote about the self.
“Our sense of self is not simply what we feel about ourselves. It is also not simply what I do in the world. It isn’t simply what I buy or who I vote for or what teams I follow. It isn’t simply my attitude or perspective. It isn’t simply what I know and what I do well. It is all those things, and more, mashed together in the contexts of our lives.
Our self-definition is not simply a set of propositions, psychological inventory scores, ancestral history, or position/title in an organization. We are more than all these things.
However, I have found that once a synthesis begins to form our core essence can be discovered. I don’t want to define it more specifically than that. There is something about ourselves that transcends time and space. We are more than the person who is present in the moment. We are more than a biologically specific entity. Our human person is a rich interplay of factors that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
If the synthesis doesn’t form, you get people who function suboptimally. It is like Peter from the classic workplace comedy, Office Space.
This is a picture of how institutions mold people into being the people that the company is known for hiring. Working just hard enough to not get fired is a better description of waste than what Dr. Barb was told by her former colleague.
To create an environment where people grow, you have to lower the barriers to leadership along with a genuine belief in the value of the person.
Then there is a freedom to contribute that can grow.
If you are stuck in a place where you feel that your sense of purpose has no role to play in your work, you should look for a different place to work. If this is where you are, I’m here to help. Remember that who you are is not a static thing, it is an evolving realization of what you can do within the context of the places where you live and work. As I repeatedly say, “We are all in transition. Every one of us. All the time.” And it is in having a clear and concrete sense of self that enables us to move through these transitions positively and productively.