Many people think of their lives as a story with a coherent and pervasive identity enduring throughout the narrative. Some also think that the story of the life they have currently got will endure beyond it. But to stay with the things we can be certain of, the sense of a story to one’s life tends to encourage the notion that there is a meaningful purpose, often perceived of as something that is lost and must be regained: “I once was lost but now am found” as the hymn has it, or “ I once was a child , but now I put away childish things” The sense of growing into one’s correct purpose.
These ideas suggest the fulfilment of one’s ‘true self’ either by growing up or turning aside from waywardness and taking the true path. Consider here the Scottish Border Ballad of True Thomas:
O see not ye yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.
‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across yon lillie leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.
‘And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.
Here Thomas’s path is subverted and he is taken on a path he had not expected. This takes the ‘story’ in another direction from the usual one of the true righteous road and the false path onto which many stray. It also raises the question of what is ‘true’ identity. The notion of a unified self which is either in a state of grace or, more likely, has to find itself among the distractions of the world is pervasive in our culture. The third alternative indicated by the Queen of Elfland above is one way of questioning that. Another is to ask if we have just one true self or a multiplicity of them spread across time, space and even, some might say, different lives?
That we appear to have a continuity of conscious identity is undeniable, though clearly this changes through time (“I once was a child …”). But even within whatever vague and elastic period we call ‘the present’ we are likely to be living with contradictions of belief, identity and even behaviour. So to oppose the notion of a ‘true self’ it might be possible to say that not only am I not the same person that I was twenty years ago, but that the person I am now is a multiplicity rather than a singularity. Clearly such an approach might cause problems with personal integrity (should that ‘me’ feel responsible for what that other ‘me’ did?) Certainly, as far as the law is concerned, the official ‘me’ will be held to account for anything we do. But that is no more challenging than the idea that a public body must take responsibility for anything done in its name by one of its members or employees.
I should stress here that what I have in mind is not that sort of facile post-modernism which suggests that one can adopt superficial identities according to the velleities of fashion, whim or desire. Rather I mean to suggest that we are complex beings who have deep-rooted contradictions in our essential selves which, in fact, may constitute different selves within the same overall sense of selfhood. So when the Queen of Elfland offers us that choice of a way between the conflicting paths of our proposed true or false selves, that is not simply a third way but a liberation from such dualistic thinking about who we are.