Is there a “true self”? Buddhists say that everything we take for “ourselves,” our “soul,” is just the effect of some past cause, in this life or others, and that to peel away those reactions-to-actions is like unwinding the translucent layers of an onion: at the core is nothing. In Western psychology we seek the true self in therapy, but it mostly comes down to the truth of emotions shaped in the vessel of childhood longings and hurts—reactions, again. Can reaction be essence? And aren’t childhood emotions generic, though biographical particulars—stories—are unique? Are we only our stories, or is there a someone they happen to?
You’d ask these questions if you were, say, Patty Hearst: someone who fashioned another identity under duress, was stuffed in a closet and forced to reconsider whether her identity as a newspaper heiress was of the essence or merely an accident; who, to survive, found the raw materials for machine gun–toting “Tania” within herself; who, when she returned to her former life, must have wondered whether the shattered, sheltered girl she could never be again was her “real self.”
Something a little like that happened to me. Though I wasn’t coerced, falling in with Jacques was not unlike being kidnapped out of the world of my birth (strange, seeing as just that had really, literally happened to him). Over time, I had to sink or swim so far from the shore of who I’d thought I was that I began to see how much of who I’d thought I was—opinions, emotions, interests—was the product of class, culture, and generation. It didn’t seem like the essence of me at all, after all—if there even was such a thing. When the innocence of your relationship to your origins is relativized, you sort of lose the only origin, or origin myth, you had. It makes you feel like anything goes. I’m making this sound scary, and it is disorienting, but sometimes in a wonderful way. The original me would never in a million years have dreamed of learning karate. Once I had broken that barrier, I could imagine myself in all kinds of different lives.
That kind of experience makes you wonder if there’s such a thing as a true self.
But now I think I might have located it.
Lately I’ve been very aware how untransferable taste is. How impossible it is to get someone to hear what you hear, to love the same constellation of music you love, to be struck at the same angle by the same books; how hard to buy someone else an item of clothing—how often have you been given something that really suited the giver? How members of the same family all want to eat different things . . .
Tastes crop up early and inexplicably. They choose from what’s at hand, of course, but from that generational and cultural pool they always choose uniquely. Maybe they have something to do with the individual composition of our senses—the way you and only you hear and see. Or maybe the array of things that please us are like iron filings that outline the shape of our soul.
Don’t you feel that no matter where you had been born, what language you had spoken, what stories had befallen you—the same flavors and colors would have pierced you, the same sounds and stories haunted you? Precisely because these things can’t be explained—they and only they might be of the essence.