An Atheism of the True Self
In David Foster Wallace’s Good Old Neon, the protagonist, who is unnamed, realizes that he’s been a fraud his entire life. Adopted as a kid, raised in a stable family and now a partner at a marketing firm, every stage in life the protagonist reflects on he realizes his own compulsion to people-please. As a kid, he would lie to his parents about his personal beliefs to gain their approval. As an adult, he appears impeccable on first dates, and then has to cut them off because of how unsustainable his image was. Even as he writes his suicide letter at the end, he considers:
I also told Fern that if her initial reaction to these reasons for my killing myself was to think that I was being much, much too hard on myself, then she should know that I was already aware that that was the most likely reaction my note would produce in her, and had probably deliberately constructed the note to at least in part prompt just that reaction, just the way my whole life I’d often said and done things designed to prompt certain people to believe that I was a genuinely outstanding person…
After a long, maddening journey concluding with the protagonist’s suicide, Good Old Neon evokes the most intense feelings of sympathy from you. Temporarily, you feel like giving everyone a hug, looking around as if to say: “Why do we play these stupid games with each other?”
Written in 2004, Good Old Neon elaborated on a theme which has particularly condensed today: the ‘true self’. The current culture feels especially concerned about whether we’re doing ‘what we actually want’, versus people pleasing in our personality, conversations, and even career choices. Along with this, are key words such as authenticity, which measures the degree to which you are being truthful, and vulnerability, which is the degree to which you express your feelings within a given moment.
Typically whenever I talk about these subjects with my friend Andy, I joke that nerds and millennials invented vulnerability because they forgot how to talk. Crashing up and down from the dopamine hits of Facebook, estranged from the pace of sustained conversation, they instead vocalized the sensations spilling over in their minds — an irritability from how slow talking actually feels, manifested personally as insecurity, which they valued with ‘truth’ so it could feel dignified. With respect to the dead, we should ask: did the games tire out Wallace, or was he estranged from them in the first place?
The problem with the true self begins with defining it. We only know what it isn’t. It’s not the front or mask you put on with parents, authorities, or the opposite sex. Supposedly, we are most in touch with the true self when we’re alone, and do what we want when no one is looking. But even this definition is crude. Alone, I feel urges to watch Netflix, Facebook videos, or to live vicariously through Dan Bilzerian on Instagram. The urges to write blog posts, study business, and generally be proactive about life — those voices feel less strong, and feel post pone-able. Which urges truly represent me?
We have to understand the target audience of the true self. It’s the entitlement generations, not only the millennials who want everything handed to them, but the retired baby boomers who had everything handed to them. The true self is one of many branches from the trunk of logic that this entitlement psyche self-affirms.
When an entire generation hears they can have it all, since they are worth it all, or because-in-America-anyone-can-do-anything, certain ironies begin to play out. One would expect that giving participation medals and emphasizing ‘being there’, more kids would be involved in sports and extra curricular than ever. In fact, the disenfranchisement of winning cheapens the value of reward, and most kids become apathetic, estranged from why it was even worth trying. One might expect that telling kids ‘they could be anything when they grow up’ would inspire them to pick something cool, and begin walking the path of 10,000 hours. In fact, most kids simply bank on the affirmation that they can be anything when they grow up — until they grow up, and, from indecision, accept purgatory in consulting or finance (‘for now until I find my passion’). One would expect that telling a shy kid to ‘be themselves’ would instantly make them magnetic and loose. In fact, most just default into being quiet again, too paralyzed to get a word in edge wise for any conversation.
Affirmations of self-esteem have paralyzed, not inspired, the rising millennial generation. Drumming into a kid’s head that they can be anything creates the destructive atmosphere that they’re undiscovered talent. What does undiscovered talent do when it’s never discovered? It doesn’t improve itself. It projects and blames the world for not matching or conforming to its inflated self-worth.
Now, obviously, this generation has been dealt a bad economic hand. Inheriting $17 trillion of national debt, student debt, and environmental catastrophe are veritable swords of Damocles that would reduce anyone to pointing fingers.
But the extent to which multiple, paralyzing ideologies have waxed over our minds are almost guaranteeing that this generation’s potential becomes too distracted to realize itself. It’s guaranteeing a generation of disgruntled, confused adults who only have the vague, warm memories of their youth to show for anything. The focus has shifted away from mastery or rising to the challenge — to writing off any difficulty in life as a conspiracy.
Remembering a childhood affirming that they were great, but ruminating in how much adulthood sucks, this generation likewise projects onto a world that was great until — ! Metaphysically, it applies to best selling, Oprah approved documentaries like The Secret, or the novel The Alchemist, both of which swear that wanting something bad enough sends quantum signals in the universe to manifest it. It is a ‘secret’ because — of corporations. Obviously this mentality applies to politics as well. Without super delegates and collusion within the DNC, we would’ve had a Sanders versus Trump election, two men who purported to be reactionaries as much as they were revolutionaries; trying to return to an America that was great until the greedy 1%ers, or the globalists hijacked the power.
The true self follows a similar, blaming story. ‘As kids’ — goes the story — ‘we were care free, and didn’t care what we say. Then adults told us to sit down and be quiet. Then adolescence happened, and we cared about popularity. Then adult hood happened, and we watched commercials and were expected to act professional’. The possibility of gaping holes in self-esteem and general confusion in adolescence isn’t considered, it’s someone else’s fault.
More fundamentally however, the true self suggests that we’re already enough. This is like cocaine for the entitlement psyche, a message that doesn’t kick the way it used to, but satiates the addiction so that the real problems can be handled ‘later’. It says that building a sense of humor or confidence are unnecessary — what people really care about is putting down your mask, and being who you really are.
Considering the question of authenticity over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle asserted that we had two selves. The first was our current self, ourselves as the culmination of our habits, and therefore the behavior we default to. The second was our future selves, the image we have of ourselves as more virtuous, prosperous and flourishing in fitness, love, wealth, and living the general life style we desire.
Attaining virtue, Aristotle believed, necessitated starving the identifications and addictions of our current self, to acquire the new habits that our future selves would have. This process is necessarily frictional, grinding, and, in a word: inauthentic. What the alcoholic needs isn’t affirmations to do what feels natural and authentic, it’s to go to rehab to sweat it out. What someone lonely needs to hear is that the only way to beat your imposter syndrome into submission is to go out and start meeting people.
As a caveat, this isn’t to say that the boisterous extrovert represents the pinnacle of self-realization. In many cases, the archetype of the quiet, contemplative person holds enormous personal gravity, and achieves a certain air by which people cling to their few, cryptic, economic remarks.
Still, it’s obvious when people aren’t this. Standing in the corner, holding their drink as if it were fine scotch, they imagine themselves as incarnations James Bond, but simply look tense, and are privately frustrated when nobody acknowledges them. This person doesn’t need to hear that they need to be themselves. They need to hear that talking to strangers, making them laugh, and developing friendships can feel normal, and that the whole process is significant but much less serious than they actually think.
Most people don’t talk to be dialectical, debate the big issues, or to ‘open up’. This isn’t because they’re shallow, or don’t value ‘truth’. It’s because they like fun, and truth is only a tool fun uses to shape an emotional experience. When we dine out, we don’t actually want the food to be served immediately. If we’re somewhere decent, we want some time to wait, drink, and to catch up with friends.
Understanding communication as a practice admits the possibility of becoming great at it. The best salesman, lobbyists and seducers describe their work as an art. This isn’t just out of self-importance, but because they remember when they were mediocre at it, mastered it with practice, and watch others fail miserably at it. This is less about ‘manipulating’ people, than it is internalizing that the biases, needs, and attractions of human nature are fairly constant.
Ironically embracing inauthenticity, directed with common sense, permits a surprising liberation. We escape circular, distracting questions of whether we’re being ‘authentic’ in every situation, and can instead appreciate the games of life with more playfulness, impartiality, and curiosity for how it works. It allows you to take pride in your own character, not because it is inherently great, but because it is fluid and craftable into something more magnetic, deep, and effective.
Admit that you’re a person, and that you care about having certain outcomes. Don’t only fake it until you make it; be humiliated with the idea of settling at all. Learn to love the dissonance of inauthenticity and growth.