As we continue to mature throughout our lives, we gain knowledge and perspective from our experience in the world. Our richest sources of perceptual experience will always be interpersonal relationships. Reading, reflection, and the personal search are all valuable, but there is little wisdom to be found in an isolation devoid of dialogue.
How can we be self-confident in our view of the world, of society, of the people we encounter, without having our understanding genuinely tested—that is, without dialogue?
Perceptions and assumptions come effortlessly. Creative imagination is a wonderful human capacity. Reason allows us to judge meaning and differences. We should be grateful for both! But neither should be mistaken for windows to truth.
It has been said that our first responsibility as human beings is the investigation of truth. Our ability to investigate and comprehend truth is broadened and deepened throughout our lives.
And so it is that we benefit from authentic interactive relationships with friends or colleagues who do not always agree with us, yet honor our integrity and respect personal differences.
Personal identity and the sense of self begins to take form in childhood and youth, in our relationships with family and the people who bring us up. If we are fortunate, our personal growth is further supported in the wider community.
Self-confidence matures with self-understanding, a process influenced most by meaningful associations with people who matter to us.
Why are self-definition and belonging so important to human beings? Why is a self-conscious sense of identity so essential for the individual? How do we know who we are? What gives us energy to express ourselves?
As we consider the prospects for a stable, just, and prosperous future, these questions loom large.
The extent to which identity and self-definition are developed through interpersonal relationships might not be obvious. But, in fact this is the only way identity is formed.
It is the means by which wisdom and character are refined throughout our lives. And it is one of the primary reasons we benefit from community.
Charles Taylor helps to illuminate the significance this has for us: “We are selves,” he writes, “only in that certain issues matter for us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me.”
He goes on to remind us that “one is a self only among other selves.” Personal freedom and independence can only develop in relation to the world around us. We learn from engaging with others and define ourselves in relation to others—even when our differences are great.
Charles Taylor continues: “My self-definition is understood as an answer to the question Who I am. And this question finds its original sense in the interchange of speakers.
“I define who I am by defining where I speak from in social space…, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out.
“We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity.
“We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.”
The great need for constructive problem-solving in today’s world presents us with the need to work effectively with all kinds of people, including those we have differences with.
This is an essential endeavor—for survival today and for the future we want for tomorrow. It will require great patience, courage, and determination.
The future will continue to present a blank wall unless and until we learn how to understand one another accurately, while leaving assumptions and hearsay behind.
Only then can we find our way forward with assurance—remaining confident in our own values and comfortable in our own skin.
You may watch for the next post on or about October 12.
A note to new readers: A project description and several sample chapters from the coming book are available at the top of the homepage: http://www.freedomstruth.net