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Being a member of a society means fighting an identity paradox on a daily basis. On the one hand, the search for one’s identity is encouraged as the ultimate path to reconciling with one’s self and living in harmony with the world. On the other hand, the society foists a range of clichés and false values, therefore, making an individual wear a mask as a shield in order to survive in the former.
The ensuing identity crisis, which triggers a major confusion in a person and leads to an inevitable conflict between an individual and a society can be quenched with an introspect into one’s own needs, beliefs and convictions, Pablo Neruda claims in one of his most famous poems, “We Are Many.”
The Conflict within
The conflict between different types of identities and the inability to choose the one that one relates to as the ethically redeemable and socially acceptable one is obvious. The very first lines display the confusion that the author feels as he tries to locate his true identity and be accepted into the society: “Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,/I cannot settle on a single one” (Neruda lines 1–2).
Fears and Expectations
As the author’s analysis of his fears and the conflict within him continues, Neruda raises the question concerning the controversy of the heroes that know no fear. Neruda makes it obvious that there is nothing redeemable in being fearless; instead, it is the art of defeating fear that makes us human.
However, with the staple of a hero that has been nurtured in the society since the dawn of time, there is no chance for people to realize that they should not be ashamed of themselves for being imperfect: “when I summon my courageous self,/a coward completely unknown to me” (Neruda lines 11–12).
Instead, Neruda argues, the society, with its stereotypes, pushes the identity crisis within a person to the point of no return. Having no other ways to be expressed, the coward within him “swaddles my poor skeleton in a thousand tiny reservations” (Neruda lines 13–14).
The resulting lack of self-assurance and certainty comes crashing at a humble member of the modern society, Neruda explains. The realization that the fear of being singled out of the rest of the people has made one’s life completely vapid and pointless can be heard distinctly in the lines “out comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,/and so I never know just WHO I AM” (Neruda lines 29–30).
The laziness that Neruda talks about, however, does not seem to refer to the traditional idea of living an idle life; instead, it seems that the poet talks about ethical laziness, which is the laziness to point at the obvious moral flaws within the societal principles. A blind compliance with the societal norms leads to the disintegration of self, Neruda warns: “I must not allow myself to disappear” (Neruda line 35).
Therefore, the multifaceted structure of a person’s identity, which develops as a result of interacting with the society, should not be ignored; instead, it should be embraced. It is only after reconciling with one’s self that one is capable of mending their ways and becoming stronger, Neruda teaches his readers in his poem. The multiple negative characters described by Neruda emerge as a result of feeling afraid of being ostracized, and admitting one’s faults to oneself is the first step towards becoming stronger.
Neruda, Pablo. “We Are Many.” Poem Hunter. 2003.