I’m stunned to discover that one dusty philosophy problem I pored over, from Pre-Socratic fragments all the way to Wittgenstein, is totally happening.
Until recently, I believed the most pertinent thing I’d picked up from half a decade of study was the fact that Schopenhauer pushed his mother down a flight of stairs. (Misogyny and old-time male intellectuals can go together like dogs and fleas!!) But, as it turns out, the big issue of our era is selfhood. And it’s much bigger than say, how much stuff can I mortgage or grab.
Yes, we’re all wrestling with red-hot identity crises—not as in fear of credit card theft, but deeper and scarier. I secretly worry that I lack a strong sense of self. Sometimes in a room of people, I sort of merge into the pack of flesh. Mirrors shock me; I always look more real somehow.
But phew, according to esoteric contemporary thinkers, I’m totally in sync with my times. So who the hell am I?
According to Christians, I’m better than the worst thing I’ve done. But Freudians say I’m permanently scarred by the worst thing that’s happened to me. The worst pain—birth? Burying my parents in dirt? The worst thing I’ve done—I honestly don’t know and no, I’m not open to suggestions.
Plato wrote that a person’s selfhood exists at birth. Immanuel Kant’s tangled sentences wind around the self-watching self. Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre say we’re a work in progress—our actions define us. According to new age soothers, I should seize the day and seek joy.
Actually, lately I feel more myself. Maybe because I tell people what I feel, even when it’s ludicrously sentimental, and I also push back when people push me. I felt present the other day on the Fifth Avenue bus when I politely told a woman she’d kicked me. And when I told an editor I didn’t want to do my article his way. But maybe I’m begging the question: defining myself by other people’s beating hearts and chattering voices.
So who the hell am I again?
Am I primarily a Jew? In 1947, and too young to know the word Jewish, I cried when my mother read a headline aloud about a new home in the Middle East for Jews—her feelings were contagious.
While working at Ms. Magazine, I believed I was primarily a woman. And you wouldn’t be reading this if I hadn’t learned new women’s rules. When I was 10, I wept when my favorite uncle said I was perverted because I couldn’t place spoons and forks properly at a Chinese restaurant. (Just pass the chopsticks, I’d say today.)
During the 1980s I worked with a movie star on Central Park West who loved Wall Street moguls and saying dirty words for female genitalia. I decided he was the New Yorker and I was still the Philadelphian—whose Quaker professors taught honor codes and disinterest in possessions. I comforted myself by writing nights and lunchtimes.
After 9/11, I knew I was a New Yorker, a woman and a Jew—in that order.
But, wait, that omits my most active self. I sacrifice money and friends to write what I think. I also live with a man and five animals. A writer, a lover, a New Yorker, a woman and a Jew—raised according to solid Quaker values. And yes, Quakers can fall short of their ideals, but I wouldn’t trade them for all the green tea in China.
Who are you?
Susan Braudy is the author and journalist whose last book, The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left, was nominated for a Pulitzer by publisher Alfred Knopf.
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