Books, Psyche, and Music: A Journey into the Self

I don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but based on what I’ve seen in my sixteen years, it seems that there is not a single teenager out there who has never struggled with finding themselves, figuring out their identity. It’s really scary, standing right there on the edge between child and adulthood without a buffer, preparing yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally to be pushed out into the real world and be a grown up. You’re supposed to have it all figured out — have a dream school, a dream job, and a plan for your dream life. You have to know what decisions you need to make to lead you down your chosen path, but how do you know what’s right for you? Then you start thinking about yourself to try and figure it all out. Let’s see, I like listening to concept albums, participating in habitat restoration, reading Kurt Vonnegut novels, drawing zentangles, and going on spontaneous adventures. I don’t like the commercial corruption of art and someday I hope to be the lead guitar player of a protest band and live in a house covered with murals that I have painted myself. Well, now that that’s settled, how is that supposed to help me figure out what I want to do with my life? What the heck does all of this even mean about me?

Like the paranoid and confused Holden Caulfield, I was worried about choosing a path that would change who I am and that I would lose the essence of my identity in the process of growing up, but I soon found myself pondering an even deeper question: how do we even know who we are? Obviously, identity is more than just what’s on your driver’s license. But trying to figure out what actually constitutes a person’s identity only lead to more and more questions.

Catcher in the Rye Collage

In The Catcher in the Rye, we regard Holden as an unreliable narrator whose actions often contradict what he says about himself. But which do we regard as the “real” Holden, who he thinks he is or who he acts as? The easy answer would be that his outward actions are his real self. But then, what he thinks of himself is part of his innermost thoughts, and even if his actions contradict them, don’t thoughts reveal something about a person’s identity too?

What is more essential to forming your identity: the way we outwardly express ourselves or is it what’s inside that counts? Lot’s of people put an emphasis on expressing yourself, your “true identity”. Just take a look at the demographics of any school campus and you’ll see groups of goths, punks, nerds, pretty pampered princesses, hipsters, ABGs, cholos, wannabe gangsters, jocks, preppy cardiganned ASB members, offbeat artists, burn outs, and more. Members of these groups identify themselves with certain looks, taste in music, interests, or even by race. Identifying with a certain group, to some people, marks themselves as different from the bland and mundane of conformity, makes them above what is considered “normal” and therefore gives them a unique identity. But can a single person be completely uniform with a social subgroup? Regardless of how we dress or act, there’s those inner thoughts again or those experiences, those things that exist only in our minds that we dare not tell anyone, and yet they affect us in our everyday lives, underlying our outward identities that everyone can see. Which aspect of ourselves is our “real” identity? One or the other? Both? None of the above? This problem is iconic of being a teenager, as can be seen in any cheesy adolescent coming of age movie and, more artistically, in the song “Cut My Hair” from the Who’s album Quadrophenia.

“Why should I care
If I have to cut my hair?
I’ve got to move with the fashion
Or be outcast
I know I should fight
But my old man he’s really alright
And I’m still living at home
Even though it won’t last

Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents
Five inches long
I’m out on the street again
And I’m leaping along
I’m dressed right for a beach fight
But I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain

The kids at school
Have parents that seem so cool
And though I don’t want to hurt them
Mine want me their way
I clean my room and my shoes
But my mother found a box of blues
And there doesn’t seem much hope
They’ll let me stay

Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents
Five inches long
I’m out on the street again
And I’m leaping along
I’m dressed right for a beach fight
But I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain

Why do I have to be different to them?
Just to earn the respect of a dance hall friend
We have the same old row, again and again
Why do I have to move with a crowd
Of kids that hardly notice I’m around
I work myself to death just to fit in

I’m coming down
Got home on the very first train from town
My dad just left for work
He wasn’t talking
It’s all a game
And inside I’m just the same
My fried egg makes me sick
First thing in the morning”

Caught between being accepted by his peers as a cool rebellious mod, reluctance to oppose his parents without any other reason besides peer pressure, and wondering why it is so important to his identity to have a certain haircut, the antihero of Quadrophenia, Jimmy, is running through the same motions that most of us have at some point or another when trying to figure ourselves out, in trying to decide whether aligning ourselves with a group will define or confine us.

A cousin recently leant me the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a psychological analysis focused on System 1 and System 2 of our brains, with System 1 being in charge of mainly intuitive thought that doesn’t require processing and System 2 being our “consciousness” that can focus on an idea or a task through elaborate thought process. While most consider System 2 “the self”, since it is the one that thinks, most of our prejudices and biases are expressed through System 1 without any conscious thought at all. So then, which has a bigger effect on our identity, our conscious thoughts or our innate biases? Is the jerk who doesn’t realize that he’s being a jerk still a jerk? I don’t consider myself a prejudiced person, but if I have unconscious biases that I express without thinking, who am I, the prejudiced or unprejudiced person?

“Is it me?
For a moment
The stars are falling
The heat is rising
The past is calling”

Moving even deeper into the confusing pit of self, is identity something that we’re born with, that’s somehow embedded within our genetic code or is it something we create over time? Are we made up of our memories, experiences, decisions, actions, and whatever has happened over the course of our lifetimes? Or is there something that is always there, deep within each of us that is uniquely ourselves and has affected all of those experiences, decisions, and actions that we have made over time? Maybe growing up as a child from a bad neighborhood with poor socioeconomic conditions will affect the way a person acts, thinks, and views the world. Maybe it will affect the decisions he makes going off into the future. But then again, if two brothers are raised under these same conditions by the same parents in the same bad neighborhood, it’s possible that one could turn to a life of crime and drug addiction while the other commits himself to hard work, finding a stable job, and creating a better future for himself. Is this difference in outcome the result of slight differences in experience between the two that affected them enough to choose different paths? Or is it because they were innately different from birth and there was something within them that had always been different, regardless of experience? From here you could dive even further into ever deeper ethical questions like, do bad decisions make bad people or are bad people just innately bad?

The process of questioning ourselves, who we are, and why we are has lead to the endless posing of an infinity of increasingly deep, abstract, and subjective questions, leaving me in a confused, panicky state and in the middle of an existential crisis. Trying to figure out what makes us ourselves has been so complicated that I started to question the process itself — should we even try to define ourselves? Or should we just simply continue to exist and try our best to do what’s right and that’s that? Does trying to figure any of this out even matter? Trying to answer all of the questions we asked before about identity is kind of pointless really, because everyone is going to, and has the right to, answer them differently, and that is going to have an affect on what makes each person themselves. Now, if you dig deep enough into what makes a person, you’ll find at the very center, both biologically and philosophically, that the one constant that defines each person is that we all have a heart. Regardless of how we carry ourselves, how we dress, how we act, what we say, what we think, and what we do with our lives, each of us has a heart, and therefore has the capacity to accept and care for each other in spite of the countless number of differences between us. All that we can know for certain is that people will be what they’ll be, and the best we can do is try to love each other, rather than analyze and pick each other apart like we’re taught to do with characters in the novels that we read in our high school English classes. We’ll probably never be able to figure out who Holden Caulfield is 100% (and he’ll probably never be able to either), but what we do know for sure is that regardless of all of his contradictions and complexities, his intentions were never bad. When he stops scrutinizing everyone he meets and criticizing any possible flaw a person could have, he realizes that in spite of the annoying eccentricities or the little mistakes made by the people he knows, he really does care for them all, and in fact, he even says that he misses the people that he casted out of his life as a bunch of dumb, flitty, phonies. His one aspiration in life, to protect children from falling off a cliff amidst their play, represents the one thing that we really can do in life: to try our best to help others. He doesn’t know who those kids are, or whether or not they’ll grow up to be a bunch of phonies, but he cares for and protects them anyways. At the end of Quadrophenia, Jimmy realizes that all of his desperate attempts to fit in with the mod crowd and be accepted were really all part of a desperate attempt to find someone to love him for himself. Because really, the only thing in life that can wash away all of the judgements, uncertainties, and fears concerning ourselves and the world is love, and the hope that it will prevail. In the last track of the album, “Love Reign O’er Me”, it says


“On the dry and dusty road
The nights we spend apart alone
I need to get back home to cool, cool rain

I can’t sleep, and I lay, and I think
The night is hot and black as ink
Oh God, I need a drink of cool, cool rain

Love, reign o’er me
Reign o’er me, o’er me, o’er me
Love, reign o’er me, o’er me

The trivial intricacies of our identities really aren’t as important as we think. What does it matter, if we’re collections of memories or some unique and concrete soul, if there’s nobody to love accept whatever it is we are? Being a lonely, isolated island where we just endlessly contemplate and scrutinize ourselves will most likely bring a person to the brink of insanity and self-implosion. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Everything about ourselves that we worry about, that makes us afraid of ourselves and our future, can be washed away by that “cool, cool rain” that comes when we reach out, make a connection, and someone from the outside trusts us, in spite of all of the craziness within. Someone that tells us that it’s okay and that they will be there for us and try to understand the best they can. Knowing that someone out there loves us makes all of the confusion disappear, and then we’re not lost anymore. All of us have the power to do this for someone, regardless of where they came from, what they’ve seen, and who they are. And there is something within each of us all that is worthy of being loved, so that the fear can be washed away and whatever it may be that defines the self can ring out with every one of the other selves, compliment each other, and harmonize in the song of us all.

Heart People Art2

2 thoughts on “Books, Psyche, and Music: A Journey into the Self

  1. The most important skill you need in life is a flexible heart. A heart that welcomes change with curiosity and joy and can absorb pain and turn it into action and joy. You can’t chose your dream life because life is such a complex project that it’s not possible to plan it. What you can do is learn to surf the good waves, avoid the terrible ones and cope with the lousy ones that you can’t avoid. This is strength.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a great, thought-provoking post and follow-up comment by Walter. The search for identity and fulfillment is definitely a life-long process and its crucial not to succumb to hopelessness. It’s like the end of the Quadrophenia film. It took me years to realize that the first scene is actually the ending, with Jimmy walking back from the cliff edge to give life another go. (But Ace Face’s scooter was not so lucky).

    Liked by 1 person

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