What Defines the Real “Me”: My Desires or My Decisions?
I ended my last post by saying that the desire for novelty and unfulfilled dreams can rob us of the joy of what we actually have and experience. Our desires can lead us to forsake our duties and throw usefulness to the wind.
Of course, some Romantics would say that it is better to live that way. By all means, they assert, throw your life to the wind. As long as your heart is in, it does not matter how enjoyable or morally praiseworthy or useful your life is. What counts is that you feel your life is truly yours; that you are being true to yourself. Authentic.
I must confess, I find this Romantic notion highly appealing. In the past, one feeling I’ve repeatedly had when spending time with my family was that the family man was not the real “me.” The real me, I sometimes told myself, was the artist, the intellectual, the traveller, the explorer. I tended to feel more at home sitting in an airplane 30,000 feet over the ocean than at the kitchen table with my family.
Why do I have a tendency to feel this way? Why did I sometimes feel that I left the real me at the airport when I walked through the door to my home? It certainly was not because my family was horrible. Quite the contrary, my wife and children were and still are wonderful human beings, more than worthy of my love. But I think I sometimes felt that the real me sat in an airplane rather than at the kitchen table because the one came naturally to me and the other did not.
I did not have to work at wanting to see new places. I did not have to work at being interested in literature, philosophy, history, science, art, and religion. I did not have to work at getting new ideas of what I could write, paint, or sing. Granted, not everything I wrote (and still write) was worthwhile reading, and my singing voice was (and is) definitely not worthwhile listening to, but still, my inclination toward creativity felt natural to me, no matter what the quality of the outcome might have been. And because it felt natural, it felt like it was the real me.
In contrast, sitting down to eat dinner with my family or going camping with them required a conscious effort to put the books or the crayons or the guitar aside and pay attention to those human beings who were closest to me. It was this conscious effort, this decision to say no to my natural inclinations and yes to my family, that produced the feeling of the family man not being the real me.
One could say, however, that it is precisely in those cases of a conscious decision that the real me comes forth. Sure, like any other animal, I have certain drives and dispositions. On the most basic level, I have the desire to eat and sleep and copulate, and on a more refined level, I might have the desire to read Shakespeare. But it is not my desires that make up my sense of having a self; it is my decisions that do so. Through them, I have the feeling of being a person that can act into the world. My “I,” my ego, is that part of me that decides between different options and says, “I will go this way, not that way; I will do this, not that.” If I always went with my natural inclinations, no decision would be needed. I would not need an “I,” a self, to steer my life; my life would be steered for me by my natural inclinations. I would be driven; I would not drive myself.
If I always went with my inclination to do something else rather than spend time with my family, no self would be needed to make this decision. If, in contrast, I decide against my natural inclination that it is a good thing to spend time with my family, a conscious self is needed to make this decision. In that sense, I am being more “myself” when I do something against my natural inclinations than when I simply follow them.