When you look at yourself in the mirror and ask, who am I?, what kind of an answer do you give yourself?
Our problem in the modern world is that as soon as we try to articulate who we are, we immediately run into the problem that there are many other people who share exactly the same characteristics that we do. When I say, for example, that I’m a person who enjoys reading about philosophy or a person who’s interested in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, then I’ve not really said anything that could define anything I am as an individual since there are many other people in the world, probably most all of you thousands of online students, who share exactly these same properties. It then becomes a more urgent question to determine what it is that makes me uniquely who I am.
We often identify ourselves by our clothes, our styles and possessions. But take a moment consider this, when I look at myself, I see that I am wearing this shirt, these pants, these shoes. But none of these things is uniquely mine. All of these are mass produced, and if I were to go onto the street it probably wouldn’t take me too long to find people wearing exactly the same shirt, exactly the same pants, exactly the same shoes. In the old days before mass production, articles like this were made by craftsmen. Each one of these articles was unique, and individuals who possessed them had literally something that was one of a kind. By contrast, since the industrial revolution, virtually everything is made in mass quantities by machines. The world today is made, as it were, by cookie cutter machines, that produce everything around us, in preset forms. The danger is that each of us has become just one more product of this machine.
Think of Andy Warhol’s famous picture of the Campbell’s tomato soup cans lined up one on top of another. This is an image of modernity. The fear of many of us is that we might become like one of these soup cans. Some people have an urge, deep within to revolt against this and to assert their individuality in the face of this kind of conformity.
Think of all the ways people try to be different from everyone and express something unique about themselves. Some people dye their hair an odd or striking color or get a tattoo or pierce some unusual part of their body. But these gestures, while at first radical, also seem to fall short since, in a very short time, they are also copied by others, and soon a trend starts, and the result is again the same. So many people are doing the same thing that nothing unique or individual is really being expressed.
This is our problem in the 21st century, and one can see that the Romantics back in Kierkegaard’s time already saw it coming more than two centuries ago. They struggled to assert the value of the individual against the forces of conformity. But they couldn’t have imagined the challenges that would come. It is these challenges that we face today.
We feel quite convinced that there is something special and unique that makes us who we are. But what is this, and how can we express it? When we fail to answer these questions, we feel disoriented and lost in the world. We feel lost since we can take no consolation in the community or social groups since they undermine our individuality and make us into faceless members of a larger whole. This is the modern problem where each individual is left to him —or herself. So again ask yourself, who are you really? Of 7 billion human beings on the planet, what makes you that unique person you are?
Jon Stewart. PhD, Dr theol & phil, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen.