Being oneself - on the difference between personality and self

This passage by e.e. cummings, an excerpt from a newspaper article he wrote for aspiring poets, illuminates some of the qualities of the human self.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

One’s personality is a re-presentation, constructed from the warp and weft of culture, and most particularly from familiar ideas that your family, your early friends, and your teachers offer you. A personality is cultivated and worn — it is selected, tried on, altered, adjusted, coordinated, consistent. Your personality flatters you. It is permeable. Knowledge and validation of this personality comes from external sources.

But your self is almost impossible to re-present, and the means for doing so is poetic and not discursive. That self may not be immune to external sources — think of how it responds to love, to terror, for instance — but it appears capably resistant to reasoning, arguments, logic or other forms of abstract language. It can also resist the effects of cajoling, shame, ridicule and other forms of control-oriented rhetoric. Where the personality strives for consistency, the self is radically inconsistent because it is constantly responding flexibly to the world, and not to standards of behaviors, expectation and social norms.

Today we are liable to mistake one’s personality for one’s self. But the poet reminds us that the surest way to know when you are experiencing your self is to try to express it. To communicate something about one’s personality is not all that hard, but nothing is more challenging than to be nobody-but-yourself. Virginia Woolf said something very similar to this.

Last updated on June 24, 2024

Tags essay Backlinks Consistency is a trait of personality Modernity replaces thick selves with thin personalities The disagreeable self The art of dialogue
Latest Happiness, eudaemonia and time The art of dialogue Striking the match Hemispheres Consistency is a trait of personality Coherence is a left brain attribute The economic interpretation of the self The disagreeable self Modernity replaces thick selves with thin personalities Being oneself - on the difference between personality and self Rebecoming Deinos