Others are not tools of the self

Our society’s way of viewing relationships leaves us painfully alone

My high school philosophy teacher enjoined a group of light green 17-year-olds to read Charles Taylor’s The Malaise of Modernity to buttress his conviction that modern relationships are bound to stultification and failure, since we are too selfish to be in healthy relationships.

Taylor paints a hollow portrait of modernity’s “liberalism.” Self-discovery and self-confirmation are the deceitfully narcissistic idioms of modern liberal rhetoric. While identity formation is contingent upon dialogue with others, individualist mores regard such encounters as mere instruments of self-realization, despite them being central to the dialogue of agreement and struggle through which our identities are properly formed.

The absence of such dialogue incites hollow relations with our selves, provoking pilgrimages towards illusory lands of self-realization and authenticity, via materialistic hyper-consumerism thriving on the latest transient trends, religion-shopping, or hiring a life coach… Yet these pilgrimages overlook the roots of the hollowness – a dearth of quality relations with others. The notion of an “inwardly-generated identity” dismisses the significance of negotiating one’s identity with others.

What stimulates me to recall this reading journey is the surge of “authentic” self-fulfilment lingo in popular culture. The bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love and its recent film adaptation chronicle a divorcée’s odyssey toward self-restoration and self-discovery by lavishly participating in cultural buffetism. Then there are those American Eagle advertisements and Rihanna’s exhortations to “live your life.” AE suggests we do this by buying unfair-trade clothes with an eagle on the tit. Rihanna suggests we do it by being “a shining star with fancy clothes and fancy cars.”

But haven’t AE and Rihanna learned anything from Mr. Scrooge and the Grinch? Livin’ the life doesn’t mean exploiting the shit out of the world’s soon-to-be-depleted resources by purchasing things we can certainly go swimmingly without. It means sharing life with others whom you value enough to be inconvenienced for and vice versa. Looking at everyone and everything as instrumental in expeditions of self-discovery is, as Taylor proposes, self-defeating.

Imagine being the most intelligent, knowledgeable individual in the world on a 500-foot yacht, with gold-plated toilets; inexhaustible supplies of your fave delicacies; the complete collection of your favourite brand of; impeccable speakers with the full discographies of your favourite bands. Yet you’re all alone.

Well that’s just shitty, ain’t it? That’s precisely what Taylor argues. He espouses a “communitarian” critique of liberalism. He argues that contrary to liberal-capitalist rhetoric, which says our existence finds meaning in the context of material items, it is actually society and those who compose it that provide the context for meaning.

We must re-evaluate how inane, narcissistic preoccupations have subtly yet surely colonized our lifestyles to the point that we forget that the virtues of human spirit – pure and simple – are what attract us to others, not what they possess.

This reminds about how often I have invested an exorbitant amount of time grooming and enrobing myself in preparation for an event where, without exception, the people worth spending my time with could not have given an [expletive] how I looked. And, without exception, all the people in my life who I hold closest to my heart evoke beauties that are entirely unrelated to attire or physicality. They could be wearing shit-stained pantyhose on their heads and I would still die for them.

So what realization emerges from this fragmented, pseudo-intellectual rambling? That the gauge of my existence’s richness relies on one material item – shit-stained pantyhose, and how many people whose faces are constrained in it I would die for. Because the pantyhose cannot constrain the virtues of their spirit. Without these people, even if wallowing around in the aforementioned yacht, I might as well die muttering bah, humbug!