Not knowing who we are—having an identity crisis—was called “homelessness” by philosopher Martin Heidegger. In his Letter on Humanism, shortly after the Second World War, he said that, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.”[i] After experiencing two world wars, it is easy to understand his inability to “locate man within being,” as regard to being human. He explained that to be human can be understood as that “in which the essence of man preserves the source that determines him.”[ii]
Being, in its essence, is already illuminated by truth, which cannot be said about the creation of concepts and ism’s. If we are to find truth, we need to look into our essence and the light that preserves us as the source of our identity. This light is the light in enlightenment, and it is by this light that we find who we are, our home and true identity.
As we saw in the chapter on religion, the God of the Roman Catholic Church did not want Adam to eat the fruit of the Three of Knowledge. To the ancient Greeks, the Gnostics, and the Eastern world, this would seem suspicious: What sort of God is this? Unless Adam was completely untrustworthy there would be no reason to withhold the truth from him, since this would lead to his destruction. To the Gnostics self-ignorance is ”a form of self-destruction,” because “whoever remains ignorant, a creature of oblivion, cannot experience fulfillment.”[iii]
History showed that not only Adam was untrustworthy, so too was the God of the Church. The atrocities committed by the ‘only true church’ by authority of this jealous God are unparalleled in history, even by the Roman Empire itself. This was why Luther reformed the Church.
The reformation was the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, not only because Adam was now free from control, but also because he was now able to read the Bible himself, which Luther had translated. By being able to read for himself, Adam could now eat the fruits from the Three of Knowledge and begin to see for himself.
Descartes’ Meditations in the 17th century was also a tree of knowledge. Descartes freed the individual from the outside authority, and moved the source of truth back within man. First he said that he would “attack straightaway those principles which supported everything I once believed.”[iv] Then he pointed to the light of nature (intuition), and he said when we see clear and distinct ideas in this light, we “need not assign to those ideas an author distinct” from ourselves.[v]
The important point here in history was that Descartes moved our source of truth from the outside authority, the God of the Church, to the inside authority of our own essence. At that time, saying that the truth is within, transformed people from suppressed victims into free individuals with the freedom to choose. Even though today there are also other powers that are trying to control us, this point is the same that others cannot tell us who we are or how we should live.
Then in 1784, Immanuel Kant asked the pressing question, “What is Enlightenment?” His answer was that enlightenment was our relationship with ourselves—how we relate to ourselves. This relationship happens in our mind and is defined by the way we relate to the present moment. Often we bring our personal history from the past into the present, and thereby we see things dimly because we relate our present experience to past experiences. To see things clearly we need to have a liberated relationship with the past, which then gives us a free access to the present. The enlightened position of the mind is one where we are free of the burden of the past. With this position of detached freedom, we can act freely in the present moment.
To help us get free of the burden of the past, today we use therapy. Personally, I have gained great insight through the use of therapy and psychoanalysis. Carl G. Jung said that, “The supreme aim of the opus psychologicum is conscious realization, and the first step is to make oneself conscious of contents that have hitherto been projected.”[vi] He also told us that this journey leads to “self-knowledge,” and thereby to “the distinction between what one really is and what is projected into one, or what one imagines oneself to be.”[vii]
There is a very important connection between our true nature and enlightenment—our true self is enlightened. And as Jung explained, to have self-knowledge, we need to know what is being projected in our mind and what we are imagining. Another contemporary thinker in the field of sociology, Zygmunt Bauman, talks about the difference between having an identity and making an identity.[viii] Here having an identity is founded on who we are—our true nature, whereas making an identity is what Jung talks about: projecting or imagining an identity.
In today’s complex world many forces are competing for control of our minds, and therefore, having an identity can sometimes seem more difficult than letting this world make us one through conditioning. The Gnostics explained that without having an identity a person is “being driven by impulses he does not understand,”[ix] and this is what happens when we let other people, or the world around us, make our identity for us.
This is the relationship between our subjective experience of ourselves and the way we experience the world ‘outside.’ Inspired by Sartre’s essay on stickiness, Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger explains that what makes our identity is a slime that sticks to our true identity. The slime that makes our identity possesses us by crossing the boundary between our identity and it:
When I believe that I possess it, behold by a curious reversal, it possesses me…If an object which I hold in my hands is solid, I can let go when I please; its inertia symbolizes for me my total power…Yet here is the slimy reversing the terms; (my self) is suddenly compromised, I open my hands, I want to let go of the slimy and it sticks to me, if draws me , it sucks me…I am no longer the master…The slime is like a liquid seen in a nightmare, when all its properties are animated by a sort of life and turn back against me.[x]
What makes the slime stick is what in the East would be called attachment. It is by attachment to projections and imagination that we create an identity that is not our true identity. This is how we experience an identity crisis when we finally have made ourselves an identity that subsumes our true identity.
The way out of this crisis is to know our true identity and hold on to it. Recognize your identity and do not let the slime stick to it: “If I dive into the water, if I plunge into it, if I let myself sink in it, I experience no discomfort, for I do not have any fear whatsoever that I may dissolve in it; I remain a solid in its liquidity.”[xi]
[i] Krell, Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger, 243.
[ii] Krell, Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger, 227-228.
[iii] Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 126, 125.
[iv] Cress, Rene Descartes; Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation One, 60.
[v] Cress, Rene Descartes; Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation Three, 75.
[vi] Yates, Jung on Death and Immortality, 76.
[vii] Ibid, 76.
[viii] Bauman, Post-modernity and its Discontents, 26.
[ix] Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 124.
[x] Bauman, Post-modernity and its Discontents, 26.
[xi] Bauman, Post-modernity and its Discontents, 27.