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The quest for "self" - Grin with cat attached
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The quest for "self" Feb. 1st, 1999 10:00 pm
Perhaps the most significant step in an individual's development comes on the day that they first ask themselves "Who am I?". In this misleadingly simple yet enormously profound question lies the start of a vital personal journey, an apparently endless sequence of question and contemplation.

Some never ask themselves this question; it may not occur to them that the question is there to be asked, or they may be sufficiently content - or resigned - in themselves that they may not think it worth asking.

However, many things can cause this question to be asked, frequently stemming from some sort of realisation that you have some difference, however slight, from the accepted norms. Maybe it's a mind that just can't stop asking why. Maybe it's a set of personal values which seem to place somewhat different emphases than the mainstream. Maybe it's a frustration with entertainment designed for the "lowest common denominator". Maybe it's a sexual interest that society prefers to deny, be it extra-marital sex, homosexuality, fetishism, or anything that goes beyond society's puritan tolerances. Maybe it's an impatience with government inaction or interference. Maybe, maybe, maybe it's one of a million things.

Maybe it's just boredom.

In the end, the reason is unimportant. Some will consider the problem, and find that mainstream society caters for them happily. Many however will feel some incompatibilty, some issue that cannot easily be resolved, and may feel confused or outcast. The need to "belong" is inherent in all of us, even for many of those who would consider themselves to be loners. Society's denial that there is anything beyond the mainstream to belong to can make this a very confusing and stressful time.

This situation occurs most commonly in adolesence, but is by no means limited to this time. And when it happens, the individual - feeling themselves to be more an individual than ever before - can feel a powerful combination of anger and confusion.

Depending on the options they see as available, they may react in a number of ways. If they see no alternative to society - as society itself would claim - they may bitter and eventually lash out. Society invariably takes this action as proof of the dangers - and evils - of difference.

They may see just a few possible alternatives, or have a very vague perception of them - after all, society usually prefers to deny their existence. These may be subcultures, countercultures, religions or cults. Seeing any alternative, they may well take the first they see, even if it's completely wrong for them. Such mismatches can harm the individual, the group, or society's perception of both. And there's no denying that some of these groups are dangerous, but while society heaps them all into one class, the information for an informed decision can be hard to come by.

Hopefully however, the individual will find some culture with which they feel some affiliation. It may not be exactly what they seek, or they may not wish to actively join it, but by knowing of it, and understanding it, they feel that there are similar minds out there, in numbers that can't just be fluke. The presence of a similar yet subtly different mindset can provide a new basis for self-analysis, strengthening them. Perhaps society's optimal case would be that these groups provide an outlet for the side that the mainstream would rather not see. Perhaps the individual may find that they can reconcile what they feel with what society expects. And perhaps they will feel the strength in numbers that means they don't have to pretend to be what they're not, the strength to be accepted for what they are.

A resolution to this requires society to become more tolerant, or the subcultures to make themselves - carefully - more visible. Society, unfortunately, has a record of moving very slowly in this area, and so it's still down to the countercultures to support their own. But with the vast expansion of the internet, anyone can make information available to anyone else, without exposing themselves to society's intolerance. In fact there is a plethora of information for those seeking to find themselves reflected in other, and often this information leads onwards to more, and more appropriate, information. At this level then the individual has the capabilty to advance, to explore in their own directions. There will often be helpful voices along the way; the internet is after all more than just pre-written information. But there will also be misleading voices, false trails set for the unwary. It almost recalls the tales of personal quests, but in this strange digital universe, self, friends, foe and weapons are of a very different form.

So now, to back off, to consider this. What am I saying here, in this stream of thought? This is no planned essay, you never learn anything if you know what you're going to write beforehand. Where has this trail led? To, it seems, a hopeful suggestion that the internet may provide some of the interest, the variety, that our mass-produced society has lost, all without venturing into the rain... But what a loss, to lose the rain! It's often said that those who "live" online become the less in the real world. But it's far more than that... online you can touch an unimaginable multitude of minds, through reading, through chatting. It's a vast extension of the world, and often a far more tolerant place for those seen as different. If an individual retreats into the online world, from whom are they retreating? Why do they chose this as a safe haven? Gone are the days when this was but a cave to hide in... it's a whole world now, a place to go to gain strength, and that strength can be carried back into the supposedly "real" world.