A recent headline in Chicago included the word “discover,” and I carried the word around in my brain all day. My thoughts reviewed all the great discoveries I heard about in school: the Rosetta Stone, the heliocentric solar system, cells, DNA, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and, of course, America. In every case, discoveries disclose what already exists. The discovery is really only unknown to the discoverer. Though some items above were unknown to all humans, even those things weren’t new. No one invented them.
Except that, if you think broadly, naming them did. The New World wasn’t new. We have only one world, and all of it includes homo sapiens doing what homo sapiens do: forming families, gathering in population centers, raising and finding food, and seeing to collective survival. Calling it “The New World,” however, said these similarities weren’t important. “The New World” makes the craven claim, “These people are nothing. More land for us. ” Meanwhile, on the other side, many native tribe names translate as “human beings.”
Concepts are powerful. Students are always surprised to learn no artist or thinker associated with the Renaissance called it the Renaissance or that, at the time, The Middle Ages or Dark ages weren’t middle or dark. No one in the bronze age said, “That’s us. Bronze is our thing. That defines us, man.”
Seen in this light, discoveries are labels that make things real.
“Self-discovery,” is even more slippery. What’s true of other discoveries must be true of what we find out about ourselves—it was there all along. We missed it. And, if it’s a discovery to us, maybe everyone witnessing our behavior already knows it.
“Boy,” I said the other day, “I’m pretty absent-minded.” My daughter said, “Duh.”
Just as with other discoveries, the label invents. In many cases, that’s not at all bad. Therapists hope names will create awareness and opportunities to redress personal troubles. Self-discovery helps when redefinition allows people to escape destructive self-definition.
But self-discovery doesn’t always work that way and sometimes feels like fiction. Once I begin to consider I’m not what I think, then I wonder, am I anything? Is self-discovery really self-serving, a pathetic effort to define myself before the truth arrives? Socrates’ precept “Know thyself” can quickly become “Delude yourself,” which is the last thing I need.
Many of the 15-17 year olds I teach say, “That’s just the way I am,” and I’m a little sad when I hear self-discovery from people so young. Can you really know yourself so early?
Language is our species’ boon and bane. Without language, we are alone. With language, we create a world of our own imagination… that bears a striking resemblance to the real world… or not.
What if we accepted that what’s new to us isn’t really new or, alternately, regarded everything as new? I’d like to believe, as Confucius did, that what we do is finally us. Declaring what we are—and what’s what, generally—is sometimes a good idea, but not always.