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Westworld and Basing Our Identity on Others} ?>
For the artificial hosts of the TV series Westworld’s resort, life is a daily invitation to be lied to, cheated, shot, or assaulted—all in the service of letting humans have a good time.
Spoiler Alert: This article contains details from Season One of Westworld.
In the first episode of Westworld, I wondered if the hosts had unexplored potential. Bernard (the lead designer of the hosts’ behavioural algorithms) is interviewing a host named Dolores. While she sits unblinking, he asks, “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
Author and mystic Thomas Merton writes, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self . . . My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”
In essence, when I define myself by outside forces, my “false self” conforms to other people’s ideas. The hosts of Westworld exist solely to prop up other people’s illusory selves. Similarly, we often do what we think other people want us to and let our actions define our identity.
Fortunately for us, Merton suggests a way to shed the illusion and own the truth about ourselves; his solution is humility. If we are open to the circumstances of our own lives, pay attention to what really matters, and avoiding the temptation to feed our ego by imitating or placating others, we may find a more substantial basis for our identities.
Living with humility is the hard work of pushing through the self-image I’ve created and deciding who I really am. Being humble and figuring out the kind of person I want to be is not something I’m likely to accomplish on my own; I need the help of the people around me. Perhaps, if I ask them which qualities they most and least admire about me, and listen carefully to their responses, I can reflect on who I think I am and decide if my current actions match up with that understanding.
In Westworld, throughout most of the series, Bernard (like the viewers) operates on the assumption that he is a human employee of the park. It’s only near the very end that the truth—and his status as an artificial life form—is revealed. In an intensely painful scene, Bernard goes back through his memories to unlock the secret of his identity. He was modeled after a man named Arnold who had been one of the park’s designers. Arnold committed suicide in a failed attempt to prevent his lifelike creations from being exploited. His partner, Dr. Robert Ford, resurrected him in the form of Bernard.
Talk about an identity crisis. Though it would be tempting to deny his newfound knowledge and live a lie, Bernard accepts that he was manufactured and that he has spent his short life meeting the expectations of Dr. Ford; that is literally his reason for existing, though he hadn’t known it at the time. Now, no longer is he Bernard, a middle-aged behavioural engineer who buried himself in his work after losing a child; he is Bernard, an artificial life form.
Understanding this gives him the freedom to reject his programming and decide how he wants to act. In humility—in complete understanding of himself—he finds clarity and peace and gets to choose his own future. As we enter into the second season of Westworld, it appears that much of the story will be about Bernard’s continuing journey of self-discovery and the actions that have been inspired by his development.
If I want to follow in Bernard’s footsteps, I can consider whether I’m wearing a mask over my identity—intentionally or not. As Merton says, “We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real… and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.” I can use humility to chip away at my life’s illusions and question whether I’m making choices based on other people’s directions or opinions. Then, armed with this new clarity, I can choose actions out of that are consistent with my true self. I can break out of my loop and enjoy the freedom of being who I was made to be.
He has been married to an extraordinarily patient woman for more than three decades and they have two adult sons. Kevin also has entirely too many DVD boxes with the words "Complete Series" on the cover. He enjoys exploring themes of faith through his fandoms.