We live in an age obsessed with self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-expression, self-help, self-image, self-identity, etc. Selfies, iPhones, YouTube, me time. We’re self-obsessed.
The idea of “being true to yourself” implies that there is a core-self at our centers to which we could, theoretically, be false. But I doubt that. I suspect, rather, that the self merely as such (that is, the self simply and purely as a self) has no content apart from 1) certain attunements to things external to the self and 2) an ability to construct narratives. To elaborate briefly on this theory, we are naturally attuned to certain things—first and foremost (to judge from babies), other people, physical objects, and bodily needs. These attunements may change with time as our narratives change: narrative is the realm of creativity and freedom, though it is sometimes also the instrument of bondage (as it is, for example, in the case of mental disease). An example of an early baby narrative is the basic story of feeding, which is established long before any self-concept: [I] hunger, [I] cry, Mom feeds [me]. This basic plotline is soon learned by the baby and she begins to tell this story to herself anticipatorily.
If this theory is true, the whole notion of “self-identity” is a misnomer. For example, part of my “self-identity” is that I am literate. In particular, I like to read old books. But I do not imagine that this is some essential, immutable aspect of myself—and nor is any other quality or attribute. If I had been born in another age to another family, I’d likely not be literate. Similarly, if I had been crippled during my early childhood (or been born with a different body) my athletic self-identity would likely be radically different. According to my theory, at least, my self merely as such has no particular content other than attunements and narration, but these give me a readiness to have particular content accrete onto the self, and from this accreted content I have formed a self-identity (in other words, a self-narrative) that happens to include books. If I am right, then, what we call “self-identity” is not really directly concerned with the self at all, but rather with accretions of habit and circumstance, organized through a creative (and therefore non-inevitable) narrative. That content is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always contingent, and always divisible from the core, essential thing—which is simply and purely a set of attunements and narrative ability.
I write against “being true to yourself” because the phrase is so often used to justify a person acting according to the person’s self-identity, regardless of whether that self-identity is good or healthy. The sentiment of being true to oneself has recently been used as a primary justification for many of the developments in “identity politics,” some (in my view) good and some bad. “I must be true to myself” has been the mantra of people who want to be free from the social and moral constraints that conflict with their desires. It has been used, for example, to justify leaving one’s family for a paramour. On the other hand, it is also the mantra of many good endeavors. Whether the effect is good or bad just depends on what one actually means to be true to when one says the thing. Inevitably, whether the effect of the saying is good or bad, one does not strictly mean what one says when one invokes being true to oneself.
My theory of selfhood is, of course, one among others. No doubt my model, like most models, is incomplete, but I think it is a good corrective for our self-obsessed society. It may be worthwhile to compare my theory of the self with two other theories from intellectual history. First, Locke claimed that the basic tools of cognition were 1) sensation, and 2) reflection. These, he argued, are the origin of all ideas. Locke’s “sensation” corresponds roughly with my attunement, as does his “reflection” with my “narrative.” Second, Freud’s theory of the ego is also similar. For Freud, “ego” is the entity that mediates between the demands of the “superego” (roughly = social expectations) and those of the “id” (roughly = sexual desire and other bodily urges). The “ego,” then, is the conjunction of just two particular attunements—the place where conflicting needs that originate externally hopefully get reconciled. I admire Freud’s work, though I also find it too reductionist. I don’t think an attunement to bodily urges and an attunement to social expectations are the only two attunements.
There is one other attunement, in particular, that I think elevates actual humanity above Freud’s model of humanity—the attunement to Goodness/morality. We often speak of this attunement as a “moral compass.” I like the metaphor, because the whole idea of a compass is that it is attuned to a magnetic center that is external to it.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl argues that the core impulse of human beings is to find a meaning in their lives that is worth living for. He posits an “existential vacuum” experienced by many in the modern world—by which he means the absence of such meaning. He attributes this absence, in part, to the loss of authoritative traditions:
At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is embedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people tell him to do (totalitarianism).
Frankl suggests that there may exist no choice to be made between the demands of society and the demands of the self—simply because the self has no particular content, looks outside itself for guidance, and therefore (of itself, at least) offers no alternative to the demands of society. The choice is not between having a master or not, but only between having this master or that. Merely for the consistency of one’s self-narrative, if for no better reason, one will usually be faithful to something.
Nevertheless, the Romantic myth of the self has flowered since World War II, culminating in what psychology professor Jean M. Twenge calls “Generation Me”—the children, youth, and young adults of today. Twenge agrees with Frankl that the fruits of the ideals of selfhood and self-definition are mixed, at best.
In some ways, the shift towards melancholy in young people seems paradoxical: Generation Me has so much more than previous generations—we are healthier, enjoy countless modern conveniences, and are better educated. But Generation Me often lacks other basic human requirements: stable close relationships, a sense of community, a feeling of safety, a simple path to adulthood and the workplace. Our grandparents may have done without television and gone to the bathroom in an outhouse, but they were usually not lonely, scared . . . , or obsessing about the best way to get into Princeton. As David Myers argues in his book The American Paradox, the United States has become a place where we have more but feel worse. Technology and material things may make life easier, but they do not seem to lead to happiness. Instead, we long for the social connections of past years, we enter a confusing world of too many choices, and we become depressed at younger and younger ages.
Similarly, Bowling Along reports that suicide rates among young people have risen by three of four times even as suicide rates among the elderly have fallen by half, and the trends are similar with respect to other symptoms of psychic distress such as depression, headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, and unhappiness.
Finally, Iris Murdoch, a twentieth-century American novelist and philosopher, challenges contemporaneous notions of “freedom” as mere unconstrainedness, which she describes as an “inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about”; instead, meaningful freedom entails “the disciplined overcoming of self.” For Murdoch, the self is not only something less than the free hero of the human story, it (or, at least, self-absorption) is actually the enemy: “In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego.” A lovely passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch is an apropos illustration of this claim:
Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent . . . .
In concert with George Eliot, Iris Murdoch maintains that “[o]bjectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings.” Not natural, but still morally requisite—and how are we to achieve something approaching objectivity and unselfishness, according to Murdoch? Part of her answer is that we must cultivate “a patient, loving regard” for that which is real: reality offers a check to our egoistic fantasies, and love impels us to really “look” at the realities that confront us, which are other and bigger (and often better) than ourselves. Thus, it is by attending to reality and then, in each given situation, making what seems to us the best choice that we live the most freely—the most free, that is, from the passions, prejudice, and self-love that would otherwise distort our reality. The mere multiplication of choices emphatically does not constitute freedom:
If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. . . . This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience.’
Surely the challenges to the Romantic, essentialist, exalted concept of selfhood are formidable—and, frankly, in my opinion, unanswerable. So too are the challenges to the related concept of freedom as unconstrainedness. Yet self-definition, self-realization, and self-expression have taken a place in contemporary American culture as core values, and even, increasingly, as the core values. Yet these are vacuous concepts, because the self merely as such is vacuous. It does not bear well the weight of glory with which we attempt to saddle it.
We don’t need to “be true to ourselves”—what does that even mean? What most people seem to mean by it is that we should live faithful to some narrative or other that we tell ourselves about ourselves. But to which narrative?! The proper object of our faithfulness is not our selves but our highest ideals and moral commitments. It is only by binding ourselves to be faithful in this sense that we attain any worthwhile sort of freedom. These are the “bonds that make us free.” One who follows one’s moral compass faithfully can be said to live a life that is better (and even more authentic!) than one who does not. We hear a lot about the importance of self-esteem in school and in the media, and not much about the importance of faithfulness. Yet it is only through faithfulness to something good that the self is made worthy of esteem. I would even say that it is only through such faithfulness that the self obtains a healthy identity. Conscientious faithfulness, then, and not introspection, is the path to wholesome self-identity. And this means nothing more or less than faithfulness to something other than the self, though it sometimes goes by the inaccurate name of “being true to yourself.”
I am not advocating self-abnegation here: what I am advocating is closer to self-forgetfulness and closer still to plain old morality—that is, faithfulness to the Good (or, what amounts to exactly the same thing for those of us who are believers, faithfulness to God). Keep your promises. Love your spouse. Render honor to your forebears and service to your children. Build wholesome communities. Be a friend. Seek for greater light and knowledge. Live in gratitude and joy for all that is beautiful and noble. These are not easy precepts and it is not natural to live by them: it requires a “disciplined overcoming of self.” So please, whatever you do, don’t be true to yourself!
 Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search of Meaning 111 (Buccaneer Books 1993).
 Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search of Meaning 111 (Buccaneer Books 1993).
 Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before 136 (2006).
 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community 262-63 (1999).
 Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts, in The Sovereignty of Good 95 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970) (hereinafter SG).
 Iris Murdoch, On “God” and “Good,” in The Sovereignty of Good 46 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970) (hereinafter GG).
 George Eliot, Middlemarch 218-19 (Wordsworth Classics 2000).
 GG at 51.
 See Iris Murdoch, The Idea of Perfection, in The Sovereignty of Good 40 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970) (hereinafter IP).
 See SG at 91 (“Should a retarded child be kept at home or sent to an institution? Should an elderly relation who is a trouble-maker be cared for or asked to go away? Should an unhappy marriage be continued for the sake of the children? . . . The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.”).
 IP at 40.
 C. Terry Warner, Bonds that Make Us Free (2001).
 I would add that my religious hope is founded on the conviction that we have all been given a working moral compass, together with grace to take the next step in following it, and that by doing so we will be led on to greater light and deeper reservoirs of goodness.
 Compare philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of the subject (which is quite similar). Badiou suggests that the core meaning of the subject is faithfulness (the subject being roughly the same as the self, though only very roughly for Badiou). Alain Badiou, Being and Event 391-409 (trans. Oliver Feltham, Continuum 2007). Badiou’s philosophy is complex, and his theory of subjectivity cannot be adequately gone into here, but the basic gist is that one commits one’s belief to an “event,” and faithfulness to this belief and this event is what constitutes one as a subject. He gives as paradigmatic examples of “events” the gospel of Christ and the French revolution—moments in history that reorganized human reality and set forth a new social order. His “event” is very roughly similar to what I might call a meta-narrative.