5 Distinct Works Exploring the Theme of Self-discovery in Culture

Literature, art, music, film, and all other creative forms provide a brief respite from the realities of our immediate surroundings, allowing our minds to roam freely and explore distant realms. Self-discovery is a theme deeply ingrained in various forms of literature, unfolding through intricate plots and central themes. Readers’ unique interpretations and personal reflections give rise to a rich tapestry of responses to literature, whether it’s the words on a page, lyrics in a song, or characters in a movie, leading us on a personal voyage of exploration.

Various literary genres offer insights into the human mind and heart, revealing how economic development has often distorted life’s values. In today’s world, the pursuit of identity is a pressing concern; individuals may accumulate wealth, but values and self-recognition can sometimes be casualties of this pursuit.

As readers, we remain firmly anchored in one place, yet the books we hold have the power to transport our minds to different realms. Here are some books that delve into the journey of self-discovery. 

Book: Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library tells the story of 35-year-old Nora Seed, a woman who has fallen deep into depression and has lost sight of her purpose. Deciding to take her own life Nora finds herself in a library somewhere between life and death, where the clock is frozen at midnight.

Inside this library every book provides a chance to try another life she could have lived, Nora remains in the library caught in a state of limbo simultaneously, she’s living an infinite number of lives that if she made different choices, could have been hers.

She discovers more and more about her possible lives in which, each possible life which fails to generate satisfaction, leaves Nora feeling incomplete. This initially invigorating prospect eventually becomes vacuous,  ‘In becoming everyone, you become no one.’

Acknowledging that an insatiable search for total happiness is ultimately futile in the book Midnight Library, Nora reaffirms the value of her ‘root’ life, previously perceived as the root of her unhappiness. She finally reconnects with her mind and realizes ‘the prison wasn’t the place but the perspective.’   As philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, ‘It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you see.’

Book: Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

This book was published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, a century known as the Age of Enlightenment. Time when thinkers turn their back on the traditional authority of the church and focus on the pursuit of human liberation, rights, natural equality and so on. This novel primarily concentrates on individual and self-realization, which is individual development from a personal state of being to a state of maturity. 

A man is shipwrecked without resources on a desert island, survives for years by his wits, undergoes immeasurable anguish as a result of his isolation, discovers a footprint in the sand that belongs to Friday, and is finally rescued from his exile. Unfortunately, all of this is wrong. The single most important fact about this boy’s adventure book is that it is not a boy’s adventure book at all but rather, a grown-up tale of a man’s discovery of himself, civilization and God.

Robinson Crusoe is an example to say that self-realization is not a simple process through which an individual knows himself, it is just the first step towards self-realization. After realizing oneself, making changes and finally expressing oneself based on the new identity are crucial to self-realization.  

Determining who we are in this world can be a daunting task to confront. The film reflects society. It is a statement of our identity.

Movie: Encanto

Encanto tells the story of the magical ‘Family Madrigal’ across multiple generations. The magic begins when the family matriarch Abuela having lost her husband while fleeing their home from conflict, is blessed with an enchanted candle which provides the community with a secure oasis and as each member of the Madrigal Family comes of age, it bestows upon them a certain gift which in return they serve the community using these gifts. 

The film’s heroine, Mirabel sits slightly on the margins as the only family member who did not receive a gift. She heads on a self-discovery journey to find out what her gift is and what her purpose is. As Mirabel sees the amazing gifts each member of her family holds, she tries to compare her destiny with theirs.

Comparison is the enemy of progress. It wasn’t until Mirabel took her course in life did she figure out exactly what she was made for. We can relate to the painful family dynamics of the Madrigals. Living in a multigenerational household built on the belief that you have to fit into a certain mold, live up to expectations that are not your own and even battle the thought of inadequacy.

Encanto is a great example of how your gifts or lack of them do not and should not define who you are. The remarkable film also shows that growth is often not possible unless you loosen your grip on things you hold dear.

It is a journey of self-discovery, empowerment, understanding and addressing deep-rooted familial and childhood trauma and reframing our negative thoughts and behaviors into positive ones.

Movie: Pursuit of Happiness

Don’t ever let somebody tell you can’t do something.” “You got a dream, you gotta protect it.” “You want something, go get it. Period”

The movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, is based on the true story of Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) a San Francisco salesman trying to make ends meet while caring for his 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Smith). Eventually, he lands an unpaid internship in a brutally competitive stockbroker training program, where only one of twenty interns will be cut. Since he has no salary and as he’s struggling to make a future for himself, they get evicted from their apartment and must find shelter in various places around the city. 

Through his self-confidence and self-awareness of what makes him happy, his son can find success. He finds happiness in himself because he is pursuing something he loves. The movie is a great example that those people who try to hold you back are unable to do what you do. 

They don’t want you to succeed and be happy because they are unhappy with themselves. The people who tell you you can’t do something are often the same people who criticize you for following what makes you happy. Discover who you are and be as authentic as you can be. ‘Originality is the best form of rebellion’.

Music: Ready to Fly by Richard Marx

I’ve been trying to open the door
To the secret of my destiny
And every new road I think is the one
Seems to lead right back to me.

I’ve looked for a way to be wiser
A way to be strong
Now I see the answer was hiding
In me all along.

And I’m ready to fly
Over the sun
Like a rocket to heaven
And I’m ready to soar
Right through the sky
Never dreamed I’d find something to lift me so high
I’ve always had wings
But I wasn’t ready to fly

This is a song by Richard Marx about the journey to self-discovery. He expresses how we can feel lost sometimes. Those moments when we are unsure of who we are let alone who we want to become. But later in the song, he explains that the answer is always within us and that if we pay attention close enough, we may just find it. In his words ‘I’ve always had wings, but I was not ready to fly’.

While the premise appears positive, there’s constant pressure to do and be more which can impede the path to self-discovery and quickly turn possibility to disappointment. Take a step back and figure out who you are then become the absolute best version of yourself.

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