Finding Oneself in a Modern World

This fall, many new faces will be arriving on campus, and many old ones will be returning. But for both groups, the same question will await them. This question has lived on Emory’s campus—all college campuses— for generations. It lurks around Asbury Circle; stalks the stacks after midnight in Woodruff Library; and patters through the fiendishly designed halls of Tarbutton when all of the faculty have gone home. It’s insistent, but patient, always around the next corner, but it never goes away: it is the question of, “what should I do?” Or as it maybe more frequently presents itself, “who should I be?”

I do not mean that, when we walk around the campus, we are always consciously asking ourselves this question. Rather, this question is always working itself out in our beliefs and choices: the individuals we are—and the individuals we become—are shaped and created by the everyday decisions we make and the experiences we undergo (παθεί μαθος).

All of the opportunities that we are faced with, and the actions we take in response, slowly accrete to form our characters. It is a process that is as inescapable as it is inevitable: even the decision to do nothing is, in some sense, a crucial choice. Apathy does not absolve us of the need to make a response, it is a kind of response itself that brings consequences of its own.

Having come to the above understanding (a personal journey for all), it is easy to be petrified by the sudden multitude of choice. How to overcome this awesome, and quite often terrifying, moment of choice? One way of confronting the moment is, as some philosophers have suggested, in terms of ‘value creation’: only through a careful, but bold, assessment and attribution of value, that is, the relevance and importance of actions and facts, can we hope to form characters with which we are happy. It is a process that must begin with self-discovery (and the question of “who do I want to be?”) and end with a resolution to guide oneself by those things and beliefs that one ‘values.’

But this leads us to only more questions: what exactly is value? (For example, is it anything more than a flimsy term of modernity?) What is ‘self-discovery’? (Think of the Greek γνώθι σεαυτόν.) How does value creation shape character? Even these few questions have occupied intellectuals for their entire lives, and obviously we cannot hope to answer them here, but I have posed them all the same because I believe them to be of no small importance in our individual lives. Each of us can (and will) spend a lifetime responding to them differently. I only ask that you consider sharing, along the way, these pieces of the puzzle as you begin to fill them in.

If you enjoyed the post, please check out the blog for Second Nature, a student organization at Emory that promotes a holistic, healthy lifestyle. Find us here.

One thought on “Finding Oneself in a Modern World

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