"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please," said Marx; while, said Joseph Chilton Pearce, "to be fully 'human' is not just to survive physically, but to survive as a cultural creature."
In some cultures, this is more difficult and less obvious than in others. "Most contemporary Americans possess no stable identity," said Diana Butler Bass.
Nothing is inherited from the past, few family ties bind, and all forms of personhood must be chosen and, often, chosen again. It is not uncommon for an individual to live in several states, marry more than once, change religious traditions one or more times, and switch jobs or even careers. Because of this open-ended quality, life is an unfinished and unfinishable project, which leaves many wondering if meaninglessness is life's ultimate meaning. Human beings might be, in essence, homeless wanderers, aimless and without final direction. And this wandering, the constant roaming for identity and vocation, fuels random busyness — doing tasks, burying oneself in work, or becoming addicted to hobbies and sports to cover the sense that life may well be without purpose.
We may need to challenge ourselves to contemplate and commit to our duties to each other. Placing ourselves in a cultural context, developing a sense of solidarity, and committing ourselves to a collective project is an important task. Christopher Phillips wrote: "Both Socrates and Oedipus believed that self-discovery was always related to the goal of advancing their respective societies. Digging into their past with no greater purpose or objective than past-dwelling introspection would have made no more sense to Sophocles' Oedipus than it would have to Socrates." The pursuit of feeling good about ourselves is not an end in itself. Someone might profit off luring us into that activity, but the broader society does not benefit. "I think self-esteem is a white invention to further separate one person from another," said Terese Marie Mailhot. "It asks people to assess their values and implies people have worth. It seems like identity capitalism."
Religion, too, is not only a goal for individual but for collective development. “The idealism of the young...if it becomes life-long commitment and action,” Jewish tradition holds, according to Eugene Borowitz, will “create a religious self.”
Of a Buddhist interpretation, Stephen Batchelor wrote:
Letting go, even momentarily and unintentionally, of that desperate and obsessive grip on self does not obliterate you but opens you up to a fleeting and highly contingent world that you share with other anxious creatures like yourself. This can be frightening; for the only certainty in such a world is that at some point you will die. You realize that your self is not a fixed thing or personal essence but a tentative and confused story hastening toward its conclusion. * * * ’Contingency’ is a concise and reasonably accurate translation of the Buddhist concept paticcasamuppada (usually rendered as ‘dependent origination’). Whatever is contingent depends on something else for its existence. * * * In eroding this sense of our own necessity, we come to see how the unprecedented and unrepeatable person we are emerges from a sublime matrix of myriad contingent events—no one of which need have happened either. Insight into the emptiness of self is achieved not by eliminating self but by understanding it to be contingent rather than necessary.
Our humanity, Joseph Chilton Pearce said, depends on accept[ing] the "tension of form and content" that is part of all being. We are terrified of our mortality and we withdraw into what we think of as a detached intellect. From this, what we call "culture" is created. But the denial of life is simply the victory of death; there's nothing "spiritual" to celebrate about it. We don't need "to abolish the ego, which would be like killing one's horse in the middle of a race." Rather what we need is "a shift of dominance, the true turning."
"Temptation," said the rapper Kendrick Lamar, "is just the feeling that you’re the most independent person on planet Earth." How will we resist that temptation and move toward interdependence?
Marx. Quoted in "Prep is Dead, Long Live Prep." Benjamin Schwarz. The Atlantic. October 2010. p 112.
Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. p. 84.
Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. pp. 228-229.
Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 46.
Terese Marie Mailhot. Heart Berries: A Memoir. Counterpoint, 2018. p. 27.
Eugene B. Borowitz. Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. (1991) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996. p. 94.
Stephen Batchelor. Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. New York: Riverhead, 2004. pp. 8-9.
Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. pp. 213-214, 216.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar, quoted in The New York Times, quoted in The Week, July 11, 2014.