In life, everyone goes through experiences, good or bad, that shape the person they become. Other than these experiences, a deciding factor on how a person is shaped is the society or community they are in. A soldier going through war experiences with his platoon will most definitely come out differently than a student experiencing high school with his friends. But ultimately, which one has more of an impact when it comes to shaping an individual’s identity?
In Karen Armstrong’s “Homo religiosus,” Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” and Susan Faludi’s “The Naked Citadel,” we can see the changes, or lack thereof, characters undergo due to certain experiences and more importantly the society they are a part of. First off, without going through a painful or challenging experience, one can’t reshape their identity. Only by going through a difficult experience within a positively driven society can a person really mature, and doing the same within a negatively driven society leads to a negative change in identity.
Someone who does not go through a challenging experience will find that their identity is either barely reformed or completely unchanged. “The Buddha always refused to define Nirvana, because it could not be understood notionally and would be inexplicable to anybody who did not undertake his practical regimen of meditation and compassion” (Armstrong, 16). This lays it out quite clearly; without experiencing the Buddha’s regimen, one could not reform their identity and reach Nirvana. The lack of an experience leaves such a void that it even seems “inexplicable” to these people.
To continue, the outsider in O’Brien’s story is Lemon’s sister, whom which Rat wrote his heartfelt letter to. “Rat mails the letter. He waits two months. The dumb cooze never writes back” (O’Brien, 316). Without going through the experiences Rat and her brother went through together on the battlefield, Lemon’s sister felt no connection or change within her that made her want to write back to Rat. The situation must have felt “inexplicable” to her, which explains why her identity was not changed at all or at least enough to warrant a reply to the letter.
Lastly, in “The Naked Citadel” when the topic of women entering the academy is brought up to its former president, he says the following: “You cannot put a male and a female on that same playing field,’ though he couldn’t say exactly why. Of his own Citadel years he conceded, “I’ve not the foggiest notion if it would have been different had women attended” (Faludi, 78). The phrase “though he couldn’t say exactly why” portrays the fact that he did not go through an experience regarding the matter of women entering the academy; and he even admits he has no idea if it would have been different had women joined during his time.
He was not able to change his identity due to lack of experience, and the situation seemed “inexplicable” to him; as it did in the other readings. A common theme across these readings is the strive to convert some characters or people into “whole” or matured beings. The process these people go through is almost always painful or difficult, but where they differ is the type of “society” or group they are with; and this small distinction plays quite the role in deciding whether or not these people successfully become “whole” being.
Basically, becoming a complete and mature being can only be accomplished when these people are a part of a positively driven society. For starters, the followers of Confucius in Armstrong’s essay had to go through a difficult process in order to achieve ren, a sort of enlightenment or end goal to their religious journey. Someone who achieved ren was thought of as a complete or “whole” being, and the fulfillment of an arduous process was needed to reach this. Yan Hui, Confucius’ most talented disciple, said the following about attempting to achieve ren.
The more I strain my gaze up towards it, the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front, but suddenly it is behind” (Armstrong, 18). This quote clearly shows how the path towards ren was a difficult one, but it gives some obscure insight towards the society of these religious peoples. People who followed religions were more connected to themselves than to their peers; but, they had one thing in common. All of them were in the same situation, going through the same confusing process, in order to achieve ren.
Not all had the exact same experience as Yan Hui, but they did certainly have a challenging experience. These religious people were driven by their desire to acquire ren; without a doubt, one can say that is a positive source of motivation. This positive motivation within their society is what allowed these religious people to be changed drastically and become enlightened by reaching ren. Moreover, the soldiers in “How to Tell a True War Story,” despite the fact that it is not specifically said, also go through experiences that would make anyone a matured person.
A tremendous human being, Rat says. Pretty nutso sometimes, but you could trust him with your life” (O’Brien, 316). A “tremendous” person in which you could entrust you life to? Sounds a lot like the “whole” man Faludi’s piece was talking about. But, how did he reach this status, while the cadets in the Citadel could not? It was because his “society” was a like-minded platoon of men who all went through the hellish experience that is war together; and that, in turn, encouraged camaraderie and a positive motivation to live between them.
This positive motivation to survive with companions allowed Kurt Lemon to successfully become a “whole” man. This idea of becoming a “whole” being and the positive outcomes in each story justifies how the presence of a positive source of motivation in a “society” has a major influence on the shaping of one’s identity. On the other hand, although becoming “whole men” was the goal of the knobs in Faludi’s text, their negatively driven society resulted in not so positive outcomes.
After being caught beating on a knob, an upperclassmen tried to explain himself: “He said that what he did was common procedure – and no different from the to survive with his ‘motivational treatment he had received as a knob at the hands of a senior who came into his room” (Faludi, 81). This “motivational treatment” is actually a terrible experience most knobs go through that has to do with getting hazed and beat up, and although most of the knobs go through it together, the fact that such a method of motivation is a part of their “society” is what leaves a negative impact on them.
Rather than having a positive and encouraging form of motivation, like the seekers of ren and Rat’s platoon, the knobs are essentially beaten and forced into becoming “whole men. ” All this does is make it harder for the cadets to mature and grow. Instead of creating “whole men,” the academy is creating uninspired brutes who beat on knobs simply due to the fact that it was done to them. Their society’s negative form of motivation is making it so that the cadets are shaped into broken men rather than whole ones.
In, O’Brien’s story, it is also shown how a negative driving force can result in a negative outcome for the person. Specifically, the scene where Rat is torturing the baby water buffalo shows how a negative motivation can lead a man to his lowest point. “The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world” (O’Brien, 321). Rat had just lost his best friend, and his response to that was to brutally kill an innocent animal.
It could be said that he was “motivated” to unjustly slaughter the baby water buffalo merely because of the void and disorientation left by the unexpected death of his best friend. Just like the knobs, being under the influence of negative motivations led to a negative change in Rat; making him resort to letting out his frustrations by maiming a harmless creature. There is a process an individual must first go through before allowing their identities to transform; as shown in the texts from Armstrong, O’Brien, and Faludi. The first step is crucial: going through a painful or challenging experience.
Examples in all three readings demonstrate how not completing this first step does not allow one’s identity to change. On the contrary, instances where this step is completed are shown by the followers of Confucius going attempting to reach ren, the knobs in the Citadel going through hazing and unwarranted punishment, and the soldiers going through war in Rat’s platoon. The next point is the one that dictates whether the change is “positive” or “negative”: the type of motivation the society or group they are a part of uses.
In particular, this element is displayed when the unified and positively driven platoon in O’Brien’s piece produces a “tremendous” human being in Lemon, while the negatively motivated society in Faludi’s work results in corrupt men rather than whole ones. The path towards reforming one’s identity is undeniably a complex one. Not only does someone have to go through an arduous experience, if they want to end up with the appropriate identity they also have to make sure they have the right incentive.