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.”