Scripting i-Dentity

Identity is the idea which God has for a person from the moment of their creation, an idea which must be realized by living. Keats speaks of the world as a “vale of soul-making,” and this is essentially what identity is about. The formula by which the soul is forged is fairly straightforward: You take what is given, and you apply will over time to make the self.

The person begins with many things: the body, the family, society, religion and education. These are the matrices of identity, the womb in which the self is formed. In a healthy society, every help is given to the individual to realize God’s vision for his life. He may be a Mandinka warrior, son of the chief, strong of right arm; or a Cambridge man, bachelor’s of history, born of Sir Arthur and Lady Edna. In either case, he has a foundation from which to begin crafting his individuality.

In the culture of death, it is a different matter. This is not merely a culture that denies the right to life, but a culture that denies each individual the right to his particular life. It is a “society excessively concerned with efficiency” (Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, Nos. I-12) that sells the identity of the human person for 30 pieces of silver.

This usurpation must be stealthily undertaken. Like a cunning thief, the devil replaces the priceless artifact with a reasonable facsimile to avoid setting off the defense mechanisms of the soul. But what are the means by which men are swindled into giving up the pearl of great price for a handful of dust?

The first is to rob people of self-knowledge. The man who does not know himself cannot set goals and priorities suited to his own personality. He must rely on the purposes given to him by others: the judgments of neighbors, the idols of society, the insinuations of advertisers.

Self-knowledge begins in prayerful silence. Here the soul is able to see herself in the light of God’s presence. Yet, “man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion” (John Paul II’s theology of the body, 9:3). Genuine human relationships are essential: They employ our talents, show us our faults, and prevent us from building up an interior fantasy self that has nothing to do with our real behavior in the world.

But where is our silence? The modern world is terrified of it. Into every cranny of a second, noise is pumped. Cell phones, elevator music, televisions, billboards: We are overloaded with information about everything except ourselves.

The corruption of human relationships requires a slightly more delicate tool. Certain psychological institutions believe that man is nothing more than a series of “scripts” — ritualized behaviors and patterns which are a kind of compromise between society and the individual.

The most serious implication of this is the idea that people’s behaviors can be modified by changing the scripts that they follow.

The main engine of scripting is the mass media. By showing the same situations again and again, with only superficial variation, media consumers are brought to think of certain behaviors as normal or expected.

There are scripts for first dates, scripts for office friendships, scripts for father-daughter talks, scripts for resolving marital strife, scripts for meeting new people — all operating on a very narrow bandwidth of experience.

This is done quite deliberately.

In the early part of this century, De Beer’s diamonds paid off movie producers to introduce diamond jewelry at peak romantic moments in their films. Now, most women wouldn’t dream of marrying a man who proposed without a bit of overpriced carbon crystal to prove his affections. More recently, ad executive Marc Gobe’s Emotional Branding described the techniques by which consumers may be taught to associate a brand-name product with the meaning, joy and hope that they crave.

The real import and depth of human relationship is leveled, and the exchange of things is substituted for the exchange of selves.

People who do not know themselves are very easy to sell to. Individuals will have individual tastes, individual wants, and individual ways of relating and of showing their feelings, and they will, generally, want to talk to and buy from other individuals.

People who are hungry for something but don’t know what it is, who are confused about the central mysteries of their own personhood, who don’t know how to relate to other people on more than a superficial level, who are fundamentally insecure about their own dignity and value will willingly be corralled into narrow and limiting “marketing demographics” in the hopes of finding something, anything, with which to identify.

In the next installment, we’ll look at God’s solution to the problem of self-knowledge and identity in the sacraments of the Church.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer