“While people are very interested in records – the warmest, the hottest, the driest, the wettest – what really matters…
“Know thyself,” said the philosophers. No problem, said the rest of us. Self-help, self-esteem, self-fulfillment, inner self, outer self – we’ve got the self covered. With those spotlights to chase away the shadows – well, as the song goes, “If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me.” But what if the self you think you know is one that has been sketched out for you instead? What if that self isn’t really you at all?
Throughout history, people have been shaped by the times in which they live. If you’d been alive in 16th century Europe, for example, chances are you’d have identified yourself as Catholic or Protestant; the dominant cultural story was religious and religious beliefs and assumptions were the order of the day. In today’s western world, the dominant cultural story is economic; economic beliefs and assumptions underlie our day-to-day lives. These economic beliefs and assumptions aren’t limited to the topic of money.
The economic story instead represents a subtle and tangled web of beliefs about who we are, what the world is like, and how we and the world interact. Since the 1970s, economic ideas have transformed our work, relationships, communities, and approach to health, education, spirituality, and creativity, creating a new dominant cultural story. Because of this central economic story, we share a lot of unarticulated assumptions that both enable and constrain us, helping us navigate the world while creating boundaries that we learn to stay inside.
Shared assumptions aren’t all bad. They help us create our life together. They give us a sense of belonging, representing our basic thoughts about how we’re expected to act and why things happen the way they do. They also provide stability by giving us mental and behavioural shortcuts. If we know, for example, that when we meet each other, we shake hands, then when we run into people we don’t have to spend time deciding how best to greet them. Knowing how we’re supposed to act also helps us predict how other people are going to act; we know what’s going on when someone walks up to us and offers us a hand to shake. We accept these kinds of predefined patterns of behaviour (and we have lots of them) as a social order that just exists. We forget that we once created these patterns. After enough time passes, we experience our shared assumptions as an objective reality. We all shake hands when we meet; that’s what people do. Eventually, straying from ‘what everybody knows’ looks like a departure from reality.
In this way, shared economic assumptions shape our experience of the world by defining what counts as reality and making that reality look self-evident and largely non-negotiable, locking us into a perception of the world that’s hard to counter. We forget our assumptions weren’t always assumptions and that predefined patterns of behaviour weren’t always predefined. We forget that created assumptions can be ‘uncreated’ too.
By forgetting that much of what we think of as reality is just one way of being in the world, we risk becoming a ready-to-wear self – a self provided to us by the economic story, one predefined by our shared assumptions. The economic story, after all, has a lot to say about what kind of self we ought to be if we want to fit into the world around us. In this ready-to-wear economic self, we’re individuals set apart from one another instead of members of a larger group. We’re constantly competing with each other, fighting for a piece of an ever-shrinking pie that was too small to begin with. We’re buyers and sellers in every part of our lives, because every part of our lives – including our families, health, and spirituality – can be thought of as a market. In these impersonal and transactional markets, we’re powerless for the most part, tossed around by market forces that aren’t under anyone’s control. In every situation, we hunt for our best advantage because we’re sure that’s what everyone else is doing too; we’d be naïve to think the world works any other way.
All told, the economic story sets the frame for who we should be – efficient, productive, entrepreneurial even if we’re not literally entrepreneurs. Exploring a self that isn’t aligned with these cultural assumptions makes the effort seem like a waste of time; an unaligned self is one that needs to be fixed, one that’s failing. Under the economic story’s influence, we struggle to grow into someone who can slip outside the story’s boundaries, past its definitions of achievement and success, its version of keeping up and fitting in.
After all, what we think is possible is tied to what we think our choices really are. When our desires for our life contradict the economic story, we find it hard to make sense of what we want – what we really value, what we really think, how we really feel. Unlike other species, we humans have a hard time staying in touch with our instincts or even knowing what those instincts are. Psychologist Abraham Maslow pointed out that we wear something because it’s in style, act a certain way because our mothers would be mad if we didn’t, eat certain foods because they’re good for us – and we do these things not necessarily because we’re expressing what we want for our lives, but because we’re following external criteria for how to live that we’ve picked up along the way. These external criteria are often stronger than our deepest impulses, which in human beings seem weak compared to other animals. Trying to discover what our deepest impulses are is what the search for self is all about.
But given the strength and allure of the economic story and the power of its shared cultural assumptions, it’s hard to recognise and act out of our true self and our real nature – not the self we think we ought to be. It’s hard to discover our real desires and characteristics and find a way to express them. It’s hard to be creative in terms of our own lives.
Instead, we’re left asking: Who is this self I thought I was? Who am I really? The questions matter because the first step to realising the philosophers’ maxim “know thyself ” is to recognise the context in which we live. Once we understand that we’re caught up in a dominant cultural story that constructs a culturally appropriate self for us and shapes our lives, we’ve taken the first step towards knowing our true self: becoming our own self.