I have some theories about why a search of Amazon’s books for “find yourself” returns 380,921 results, including, but not limited to young-adult fiction books, memoirs, fantasy series, self-help books, religious studies, and psychology textbooks. I find it interesting that the feeling of needing to search and discover oneself seems to be nearly universal, geographically, culturally, and even going back in time. For instance, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was customary for English well-to-dos to travel Europe for at least a year before taking over or participating in their family business: they would go see the ancient sites in Rome, travel the French countryside, visit with relatives in Germany–because who didn’t have relatives in Germany? They would use this time as a sort of cultural coming of age, a chance to get out of their bubble and see the world, in the hopes that when they came back to England, they would be better Englishmen for having seen the rest of the world.
But coming of age isn’t really synonymous with finding yourself, is it? In the movie The Way, Martin Sheen was way past his First Communion years, and the ladies in Waiting to Exhale aren’t struggling in their 30s because they missed their sweet 16s, and Kimmy Schmidt may intellectually be sort of stuck at 14-years-old, but I don’t think you’re allowed to pay rent on a New York apartment without some sort of proof of adulthood.
No, coming of age is the first and most obvious transition from childhood to something nearing maturity: succinctly summarized, it’s the moment, extended as it may be, when you realize there is much you don’t know and the world is so much more complicated than you thought. Finding yourself necessarily comes later, and it may be similar, but it doesn’t involve growing up anymore. It more resembles growing in. Because when people talk about finding themselves, what they really mean is learning to recognize the horizon line between themselves and the rest of the world, being able to see where everything else ends and they begin.
So how do you go about such a quest? Is it a physical ordeal, like being dropped off by helicopter and having to find your way to civilization before your water supply runs out? Or is it more spiritual, where you pay someone for the opportunity to hallucinate in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour?
I guess it could be any of those. My theory as to why humans seek out these sorts of activities is that, because we’re social creatures, we spend our whole lives in a pool with other people. Most of us crave, in one way or another, contact with other humans. Even if it’s shallow or outwardly meaningless. Even if it’s infrequent or highly controlled. Isolation isn’t natural, it isn’t generally desirable, but without it, we live in a world with a lot of noise. Especially in today’s always-connected social scene, that noise can sometimes build up to the point where every day is a confusing blur and every decision is made on instinct and feels very hollow. So if an individual can separate themselves from that noise just long enough to hear, clear as crystal, their own individual signal, they might better understand how they fit into the groups they’re a part of, and they may better understand how those groups positively and negatively affect their lives.
But for those of us not interested in spending lots of money or willingly facing death, where can we go, what can we do to listen to our signal?
I’ll spare you the lifetimes it would take to read all 380,921 book results on Amazon and say merely this: if you’re worried that you don’t know who you are, if you’re worried you can’t see the separation between yourself and the world around you, if you’re worried you’re losing your concept of self to outside forces you don’t understand or see, then take comfort in the fact that that’s normal, that’s human, and that’s the cost of being social and living in groups. Then set aside some time each day–I’m not going to be nice and say fifteen minutes is enough time, because it’s probably not–to sit alone with yourself. Maybe do some coloring or listen to some soundscapes if you’re into edgy trends. Or maybe just wear a warm sweater, sit on your porch, sip coffee, and turn off your phone. I’ll warn you, even just that level of aloneness can be overwhelming if you’re not used to it, so it might be good to bring a sheet of paper and a pen so you have somewhere to eject and process your more troublesome thoughts as they arise.
All of this may sound very new-agey, and if you’re busy, the idea of sitting outside for an hour with a cup of coffee may be laughable. And maybe you don’t feel like you need it. Maybe you’ve got a firm grasp on your identity, on who you are and how you fit, and that’s great. But if you don’t, and if that bothers you, it can feel very odd, like drinking too much and then trying to sit through a lecture you’re not interested in, or like ordering a salad when all you really want is a bucket of mozzarella sticks. If that’s you, don’t let the self-help industry fool you: it’s not a hard problem to remedy. You just need to be alone long enough to know what that means.