Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Nature of Identity

What makes me, me?  What is my heart for?  How does our realities shape our identities?  These questions are all ones that the main character of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji Ikari, must answer.

For the uninitiated, Neon Genesis Evangelion(the tv series) is a tale of giant cyborgs called Evangelions fighting great monsters known as Angels, but the true subject of the series is the deeply flawed cast of characters, all of which have enough daddy/mommy issues to make Freud blush.  But one topic that remains consistent throughout the series is how we define ourselves and what is our true identities.  I don’t agree with much of what Neon Genesis Evangelion presents, but we can still glean some important lessons from it.

Shinji constantly struggles with self loathing as well as obtaining acceptance from his father and his peers.  Thus, for the most part, all of his heroic actions of piloting the Evangelion unit 01 are motivated out of nothing less than gaining acceptance.  Shinji believes that he is worthless and no one truly cares for him. His abandonment issues from the time he was a child continue to pour over into all aspects of his life.  I am sure many of us know people like Shinji who are unable to move beyond their traumas and constantly seek affirmation from those that ignore them.

At the end of the series(Spoilers) Shinji comes to the realization that he must love himself first before he can begin to love others.  He also realizes that he can reject his current image of himself and craft his own reality and identity.  In fact, the series emphasizes that there are many different Shinjis.  There is the Shinji through the eyes of his father, and another Shinji that exists through the eyes of characters such as Rei, and then there is Shinji as he sees himself.  Thus it makes sense considering this ideology that Shinji can craft his own identity.  However, Shinji does not cling to nor develop a core that he can depend upon.

In many ways, our identity is tied to our preconceived notions about ourselves.  If we believe we are pathetic and worthless, our actions reflect that mindset and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.  Worse yet, our identities are meaningless without love and we cannot truly experience love if we do not love ourselves.  Thus those with self loathing tendencies like Shinji do not have fully formed identities.  The Golden Rule in the Bible in a way acknowledges that in order to truly love others you must love yourself.  Those with no sense of self worth cannot reach out to others in meaningful ways.  This is a major issue for Shinji as he finds himself trying to reach out to people like Rei and Asuka but ultimately he pushes himself and them farther away.

Yet, I believe that simply existentialist reconstructions of one’s character and perceptions is not enough.  One needs a core, some idea or ideology to shape their life around and to give one some degree of purpose and meaning.  Everyone has such a core, whether it be a belief in the goodness of humanity, technological advancement bringing greater equality and improved life, or a belief in God.    I believe much of Shinji’s unhappiness and indeed much of our unhappiness originates from our seeking for happiness in the wrong places.  When we merely do things in an attempt to force others to love us, then we miss the true happiness which can come from doing things because it falls in line with our greater core values.  Shinji seems to be grasping at some core values but his own self loathing and his lack of a clear identity gets in the way.

In the end,  love and our external core values define our identity.  As the apostle Paul wrote, “Without love I am nothing.”

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2 thoughts on “Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Nature of Identity

  1. Great post. I enjoyed the line about Freud blushing (I wonder if that *ever* happened), but even more, I enjoyed your discussion of self-loathing as an impediment to loving others. You’re quite right – my grandmother always used to say that you have to love yourself before you can love other people. This doesn’t merely involve avoiding inaccurate perspectives (only seeing the bad, not seeing the good), but it also involves self transformation, as you note. Interestingly, the combination of Truth (seeing oneself accurately) and being willing to change the undesirable forms the basis of Cognitive Therapy, which has completely transformed the practice of psychology over the past five decades. Instead of wasting energy hating ourselves, why not get out there and be/do what we want to be and do?

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  2. I was not aware of its connection to Cognitive Therapy but that makes perfect sense. One of our biggest problems, in my opinion, is when we either view ourselves too highly or too lowly. Both are incredibly dangerous. To view oneself with sober judgement and then have the will to change that which is damaging or negative is a difficult task, but I believe it is an important one that we all must practice, including myself.

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