Forming Identity: Finding one's self in a world of opposites / by Sam Abelow

Digital collage, featuring two original paintings

As a young person in the search of an authentic identity we play with ideas, ideals and sort out through relationships who we are. As we formulate our world view, we expose ourselves to different outlooks on life. In a process of aggregation and differentiation, these contents make up the fabric of our self-concept.

It is unresolved opposites which hamper one’s progress to a complete and authentic sense of self. As a songwriter and musician, it can be challenging to become aware of the manifold genres and approaches, to be inspired by a varied range of idioms. To appreciate the way other people choose to express themselves, and be confident in one’s own style takes an awareness that: many genres have artistic value and it’s important to choose a particular approach that suites one’s proclivities best.

Emerging into the world and exploring the many approaches — through reading books, talking with elders, traveling and seeing other cultures — leaves us with a predicament: Which path, which way is the right one? So many of the approaches seem oppositional. And even when we find a good fit, it may not be our own. It may be only temporary, like a rental tuxedo or dress that must be returned. That is, until we can sew our own garment, our own authentic identity, and feel the perfect-fit, the fulfillment of living one’s truth.

As a young songwriter, one often tries on the musical personalities of the greats who’ve come before us. There may be a phase of Kurt Cobain and then Radiohead, or Led Zeppelin and then Notorious BIG. In these experiments, one can eventually curate and innovate a unique musical identity. But, although one’s musical interests may be diverse, it takes a massive amount of dedication to master any single genre. One cannot make a convincing reggae album one year and then a grunge record the next; this genre-switching, masquerading was exemplified by Snoop Dogg's "dreadful fake patois."

So we all must choose, at least for some time, a singular, or deliberate direction, while also respecting that of others.

The Pressure to Take a Side

Personal identity is more complicated than musical identity. In today’s world we are constantly exposed to a multitude of divergent ideas and ideals. There are progressive and conservative political outlooks, which often take hard counterarguments to the other; there is the spiritual and rational world views and the scientific and New Age ideologies which both preach absolute truth. These opposing camps bid one to choose a side. Many feel the call to take a lucrative job in finance, advertising or media. On the other hand some find themselves compelled to become holistic healers, organic farmers, or artists.

Depending on our parents, teachers and friends, our political ideology may be prefixed: generally there may be a sense that it is the institutions who are responsible for the victimization of the less privileged (Left, progressivism), or it may be that one sees intuitions as a framework that keeps society together, under the pretext of a free market (Right, conservatism). Whichever side we feel more aligned with, to me there is a way to understand and see value in both aspects of the phenomena of society. You may want to look at the work of NYU Psychologist John Haidt for more on that.

The more people can open themselves up to the genuine arguments from opposing points of view, the more fruitful discourse will be. Today, with the internet, which creates algorithmic echo-chambers and developments of extreme partisan politics, it is important for young people to take on nuanced points of view.

Reconcile Spirit and Intellect

Too much spirituality and one becomes aloof and ineffective; too much rationality and one becomes dry, detached and dully intellectual. Carl Jung said in a letter to author Henry Miller, “It is so important to keep close to the earth, as the spirit is always soaring up to heaven like a flame as much destructive as enlightening.” I always say, “The person who gravitates towards meditation and psychedelics is the person who needs to engage with the body and with practical life. The person who has no interest in those explorations is the one who needs them most.”

There is value in both the scientific and spiritual perspectives; there is a way to reconcile both of these seemingly opposite attributes and express them both within the potentially multidimensional individual personality. The more individuals who are able to obtain this position, the more we will see technology being used for the benefit of all of humanity.

Reconcile Work and Play

People going into finance, or law for example, may find that the long hours behind a desk, the intensity and stress of the competitive field worth it for the monetary success. They work hard and play hard when they’re young and the burgeoning bank account provides a cushion, against the challenges of parenthood, disease or hardship. And yet, after many years, those so focused on material success may fail to recognize, or even have a mid-life crisis which points to the missing aspect of themselves: that which desires to be creative, spontaneous, free from responsibility and playful like a child.

Close up detail from an original mixed-media painting: a child watches a world filled with, vibrant, psychedelic colors

For the organic farmer, or wanderlust traveler, the artist or iconoclast, there may be a sense of invigoration — a vibrant sense of purpose, connection and exciting unpredictability. But the responsibilities of life, the inevitable deprivations of a risky income may leave this person wondering if they could’ve made stronger roots.

Reconcile Art and Money

To an artist or songwriter it may be hard to see how monetization and creative integrity could go hand-in-hand; for the wanderlust it may be I distant thought to see the value in security and a strong foundation, which could dovetail with seeking new experiences across the globe. To the business-driven person it may be hard to disconnect and find downtime, as well as value therapeutic and spiritual experiences. A person caught up int he grind may not to allow for creative expression and openness for the beauty of life to seep in.

If these opposites can be reconciled within individuals in this society, the greater whole will see a profound transformation.

For my next post on this topic I will get into specific contradictions that I’ve come across in my own spiritual and artistic pursuits. This is all an ongoing pursuit, and I will share the best I can, as I continue to learn, adapt and implement these ideas.