Note to Self

20111217-121831.jpgI came upon a terse description of ‘identity’ this week in a longer piece by neuroscientist Terrence W. Deacon of USC Berkeley:

An intrinsic tendency to maintain a distinctive integrity against the ravages of increasing entropy as well as disturbances imposed by the surroundings.

He was describing the way molecules come together in sympathetic, then symbiotic relationships to form ‘auto-catalytic’ processes – where one chemical reaction feeds, and is fed by another. But deliberately he was defining ‘self’ in a way which embraces chemicals, bodies and minds.

I watched a chilling piece on the news last night about Alzheimer’s, with an awareness raising TV ad portrays sufferers fading through transparency to invisibility. Another of Deacon’s definitions – intended for chemicals, is as true of minds:

To be truly self-maintaining, a system must contain within it some means to ‘remember’ and regenerate those constraints determining its integrity which would otherwise tend to dissipate spontaneously.

Which leads me to the conclusion that:

After Aristotle, as moral animals, we are what we repeatedly do.

After Aquinas and McCabe, as linguistic animals, we are what we think, say and write.

And after Deacon, as forgetful animals – sometimes helpfully, sometimes tragically – we are what we can remember against the ravages of entropy, the environment and time.

All the more reason to write the odd reminder I think.

Personas

I’ve had several prompts recently to think about multiple personas. I’ve got a few different ones, and I was wondering the other morning whether this is good, bad or inevitable. First the prompts – and they are an eclectic bunch 1) Kierkegaard 2) venn diagrams and voluntary redundancy 3) the Portuguese writer Pessoa 4) the iPad 5) a Civil Servant I admire 6) cufflinks 7) a theory of very old age 8) a friend at work

Basically my question to myself as I walked into the office was: “Would I be happier if I was exactly the same person at work as I am at home?” My conclusion is not yet, but maybe one day. Here’s a veritable magpies nest of ideas in support of that thesis:

1) I am almost certainly in Kierkegaard’s ‘Ethical’ stage of life. Kierkegaard defines three stages of life in ‘Stages on life’s way‘: the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious. He writes:

The aesthetic sphere is the sphere of immediacy, the ethical the sphere of requirement (and this requirement is so infinite that the individual always goes bankrupt), the religious the sphere of fulfilment.

In the ethical phase of life we seek to find ourselves in the jobs and roles we hold: father, manager, dog owner, minor pillar of the local community. Each of these roles requires things of us. To be the ‘ideal form’ of any of these roles is hard – to achieve the ideal in all simultaneously is impossible – hence Kierkegaard’s infinite requirement and inevitable bankruptcy. Thus, as I read him, we either reduce the number of roles (Kierkegaard I note spurned his true love to focus on writing) or we face varying degrees of falling short and dissatisfaction, until we give up trying please everyone and find solace in a one to one with God.

2) I’ve written about the salutary experience of seeing senior people leaving my organisation and realising the organisation defines their identity more than anything else in their lives. I conclude it is not wise to find one’s identity in a single role – especially one as fickle as a salaried job.

3) I read this week that Pessoa seemed to be a pretty uninteresting chap until a large chest of papers was discovered after his death with myriad texts written in myriad different identities – his heteronyms as he called them.

4) I don’t take my iPad to work. Partly, given they are still considered ostentatious, to avoid the ‘jeering’, which Epictetus invites us to brace ourselves for when attempting any self improvement. The prime reason though is it has pictures of my kids, my private thoughts and Apps which reveal my passions, idiosyncrasies and neuroses. It’s me and that’s my business not my work’s business.

5) The UK Civil Service distorted me as a person. It made me introverted, glum and bleak. A Civil Servant I admire always keeps his glass half full, despite the burden of being substantially responsible for the criminal justice system. I talked to him about trying blogging the other day – I blog at work too – and then immediately stopped myself. There’s no way he could blog in his job. He’d be leaked, misconstrued and pilloried in the press within hours if he wrote anything interesting. The ‘ideal type’ of the true Civil Servant cannot be entirely candid. The ‘ethical phase’ of his life requires great patience and careful manoeuvring to serve his higher purpose.

6) My daughter chose some heart shaped cufflinks for me for Christmas. I felt bad because I thought they were inappropriate for work. I asked a friend, he agreed. I asked another. He said: “Wear them, it’s who you are”. I wore them to our Management Board this week. Nothing bad happened.

7) My mother-in-law says that, in her experience of others, beyond 90 years of age people become the very essence of themselves. She had a friend who worked in fashion who beyond 90 became interested only in the appearance of others. A friend at work told me a relative who had been a spy became absorbed in a deeply secret mission in her final years. Neither was doolally, both simply became the essence of their prime persona in very old age.

8) A close friend advised me to be ‘me’ first and derive my work persona from the true ‘me’.

My synthesis from these prompts is this:

I have lived through my ‘Aesthetic stage’ and pursued beauty, booze and hedonism. I am now firmly in my ‘Ethical stage’. I have chosen to take on many roles: life partner, dog owner, father, director, volunteer, committee man, ascetic, philosopher and I am seeking fulfilment by chasing the ‘ideal’ in each. At times the demands and circumstances of one jostles the others. And some roles don’t fit me or mess up the others – being a Senior Civil Servant did. But mostly, despite Kierkegaard’s warning, their requirements are being met. I am not yet bankrupted by their demands and thanks to Aristotle and others I’m optimistic I can keep to a modest overdraft in meeting the needs of most of my ecosystem most of the time.

I suspect, at this stage of my life, seeking to fulfil all these roles is an essential part of finding my own essence. None of these entirely define the person I am or will become, some will fit me more or less well. If any of them excessively distort or damage the others I need to redefine the ‘terms of trade’ or stop doing it. Let them all get out of hand and I’ll dip into fatigue or get ill. Let one get too far out of step and dominate, and the others will suffer. Cordon off a secret role and some of what I’m about will disappear into a Pessoan private trunk. And that would be bad, because Kierkegaard advises that the guiding light in the ‘Ethical Stage’ is honesty and transparency.

So who am I? At the moment I am my multiple personas. The essence will be revealed in time, but for now I am simply the sum of my roles, no more no less. And given how important some of those roles are to me, I think that feels fine for now.