The Pursuit of Individuality and Purpose

By Zixuan Zheng

The ideology of the French philosopher Rene Descartes, cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), represents a typical question many people intend to ponder: how can we sense ourselves to prove the meanings of our lives. We, as human beings, reflect on ourselves, seeking various evidence that can stand testament to our mere existence in this grand world. As once proposed by the well-known American psychologist John Gray, both genders achieve this goal through different methods: men with their achievements and women through their feelings and family relationships. Although this idea can be applied to certain times and eras, in today’s world, where our perceptions of gender roles have significantly evolved, this concept deserves scrutiny due to the fact that women have obtained more opportunities to realize their potential, and both genders understand their purpose for existence through communicating and impacting others.

Gray’s argument held true when women were not fully recognized and had restricted opportunities. Before the feminist movement began in the late 17th century, women rarely had a firm voice in society. In most patriarchal societies, women were often subjected to the will of men and considered to be domestic beings. As Candy Stanton and Talleyrand respectively manifested in the address to the 1869 Women's Suffrage Convention and the Report on Public Instruction in 1791, “[S]ociety is but the reflection of man himself, untampered by women’s thought” (Stanton) because “[Women’s] delicate constitutions, their peaceful inclinations, and …motherhood set them apart from strenuous habits and onerous duties (referring to political rights in the context)” (Talleyrand). In a similar sentiment, Catharine Beecher stated that a “[W]oman is to win everything by peace and love… and this should all be accomplished in the domestic and social circle” (Beecher).  While most upper-class or middle-class women were “imprisoned” at home, they had limited contact with the outside world. Their engagements with their husbands and their temperaments acted as the only two mirrors in their world through which they could gain a sense of their authentic selves. On the contrary, as the backbones of families, men were often burdened with the responsibilities of offering better lives to their spouses and children. With more capabilities came higher status on the social ladder. Persisting in a meritocratic society, men were usually classified based on their merits or achievements. Therefore, in the past, men often defined themselves based on what they could achieve.

However, as the first, second, and third waves of the feminist movement gained momentum in the 20th and the 21st century, women were exposed to more and more opportunities to demonstrate themselves in society and become indispensable components of the world. They were able to experience their influence on multiple aspects of the world outside of family relationships and their emotional status by engaging in politics, devoting themselves to social movements, and undertaking  various occupations as well. As an active feminist, Chimamanda Adichie actively expressed her ideas on the genuine definition of “feminism” and feministic mindsets. Her sense of self lay in her evangelical fervor of feminism or her social contributions. She was able to feel her importance in this field, her mission to rectify misunderstandings surrounding feminism, and her role to pursue mutual good for both genders. More generally, as represented in Young’s article, women’s wages have been increasing every year since the 1980s. This ongoing trend not only represents that women are gaining increasing awareness and recognition in their occupations but also that our society has become more welcoming to additional tags for women besides “mothers” and “wives.”  By engaging in activities that used to be considered male-based only, women are casting shadows that extend outside of the domestic range.

In addition, both genders can unveil their meaning of existence through their own interests. There are billions of people in the world with unique interests, like stars decorating the clear sky. It is improper and limiting to categorize millions of individuals under only three categories like “achievements,” “emotions,” and “family relationships.” Men do not need to be tied down by the conventional expectations of “being a grown man” (French) but instead should embrace their potentials and talents. Thinking optimistically, we may ultimately achieve little while feeling the worth of our lives. After all, it doesn’t have to be fame and fortune that individuals crave. Artist Vincent Van Gogh was not famous when he was alive, and his misery eventually led to his depression and alcoholism. He was not wealthy, either, having only enough money to support himself. But can we say that he was unable to sense himself? No. Van Gogh’s art served as reflections of Van Gogh himself as he explicitly demonstrated his emotional status, observations of lives, and personal interests on canvas. He paved a distinct path for himself and was held in high regard after his departure to the solemn shades.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that everyone should be talented to be appreciated. Sometimes, having more insights or experience in a particular field is enough to bring high regard to people. This feeling of satisfaction and pride allows them to sense their worth and significance in the world. By spreading what people already know and what they have concluded based on their experience, people can define themselves through their influence over others. Testified by the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, only through an encounter

with another person can one come to appreciate their unique perspective and see themselves as a whole entity (Birhane). When we offer a unique point of view or elicit a hot debate, we are altering small yet essential components of society. Through reciprocal interactions with others, we can not only shape others' perspectives but also augment our own concepts on issues, making small differences in society. With our world becoming increasingly open to different perspectives, illustrating distinctive perceptions becomes another path through which people can sense themselves.

As human civilization moves along the pathway into a new era, we adjust our perceptions of gender-based roles and realize that gender groups, namely men and women, have multiple ways to pursue self-awareness. Both women and men indeed suffered from the stereotypical burdens and restraints of the past. Yet, when applied to the present situation, women actually have more chances to reflect on themselves as more career opportunities and social attention have been given to them. Both genders are gradually moving towards an objective where they can find their meanings of existence through their passions and communications with others. Perhaps, the next step forward is to drop labels altogether and move towards a society that appreciates uniqueness and embraces environments where all individuals can unearth their true purpose of being.