Stop Trying to Find Yourself

Wenmiao (Confucius Temple), Nanshi district. Bradley Mayhew, Lonely Planet, Getty Images

The quest to “find oneself” is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous.

Confucius would have been a phenomenal southern lady. It’s said that he could walk into a room, sense where there was tension, and with a spritz of social joviality—a certain poem, a certain tone of voice, a well-timed question or a tasteful joke—could get the room flowing as smoothly as butter on a warm biscuit. He was an expert socialite. A regular Amanda Wingfield. Or at least that’s the impression one might get from Michael Puett’s account.

Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard, is the university’s most popular professor. He came to the Humanist Hub as a speaker in continuing series on the future of humanism. His agenda though was not to talk about Confucius’s adeptness for hosting parties in antebellum Alabama, but about why the quest to “find oneself” is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous.

Puett paraphrases ancient Chinese philosophy as well as some modern psychology in saying that we grow up socialized as simply reactive creatures: children that respond to the anger, joy, sourness, sadness, or anything around us. As we grow older, we begin to solidify patterns of action based on whoever we grew up around. If someone gets angry, we may meet them at their anger or rush around trying to appease them. If someone is happy, we may toss ourselves under the bus to keep them happy.

If we ever truly find and become “ourselves,” Puett claims, what we become is a mass of conditioned impulses, blindly accumulated over a lifetime of external conditioning. The prescription offered by Puett is not to find ourselves but overcome ourselves. How we do that is not by being free individuals flying on impulse, but quite the contrary, by submitting ourselves to ritual.

[Ritual is] a counterintuitive and even off-putting notion to Humanists

It’s a counterintuitive and even off-putting notion to Humanists who often value self-determination, individuality and freedom from outmoded traditions—ritual among them. But Puett says that ancient Chinese philosophers saw too much autonomy as a trap and ritual as a tool of transcending blind impulses that have become part of our “selves.”

To do what feels natural would often just be a continuation of what we already do. Consider that certain friend of yours who repeats the same relationship again and again with variations on the same partner. Or the same thanksgiving fiasco that happens every year. The same shallow breakfast banter repeated week to week, morning after morning, giving you no deeper insight into the people sitting with you across the kitchen table. “How are you?” “Fine.” (I’m about to lose my job. I can’t sleep.) “And what about you?” “Oh, I’m doing well.” (I haven’t spoken to my sister in years. I may have cancer.)

The most important ritual Puett says we should cultivate is in fact a kind of meta-ritual: to consistently break existing rituals and routines. Ask the person how they are in a slightly different tone, watch what happens. Tilt your head, change your facial expression, watch what happens. Ritualistically tweak your routines and try to see if you can uncover the fear beneath the anger, the anxiety beneath the cool, and in so doing come to see them as more fully human, and in turn cultivating “humaneness.”

We may begin to find that the stories of those around us go deeper than we thought

Recently, Nina Lytton the Hub’s new student minister, told a personal story of precisely this sort of routine-tweaking. She was on a nightmarish 30-hour road trip to see the eclipse with long-time friends of hers. Two of the friends in question were a long-time couple, and tensions were high, sniping constant, and the one man in the car (named ‘Dick’ for purposes of the story) was not conversing so much as firing off commands, point blank.

After many hours of aggravated driving, Nina made a slight, Confucius-like change to the conversation. She began talking in I-statements to express her preferences and ideas—something she’d picked up from the Hub’s Monday night discussion groups. Soon, another woman in the car caught on. Then the third. And by the end of the trip, even the man stopped dishing out orders and began to express his own feelings and preferences and made a modest effort at asking others for theirs.

A small change to the routine, a big difference on the 15-hour car ride back.

Ritualistic breaking of routine such as this, practiced consistently over many years, may well make us into nimble socialites like Confucius. But more importantly, we may begin to find that the stories of those around us go deeper than we thought, that their inner lives are richer than we’d ever suspected, that—in short—the are more human than they’d been before. And that we, by the same measure, are more humane.

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Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.