Who are you: Really?
How would you answer the question:
Who are you?
You might answer with a name.
So in my case I might say: I am Stephen, or I am Stephen Farah. But this is limited and somewhat flawed answer to the question. You existed prior to being named, legally you can apply to change your name, and frequently people use an alias for one reason or another.
Whilst a name has a power over you it is not who you inalienably are. If it were, then the alias would be the identity, and we would not infer the identity of an authentic person behind the alias.
The fact that identity is not captured with your name is also apparent in the fact that two people can and frequently do have the same name, yet naturally we do not believe that they are identical.
Your name is a social and legal signifier of identity, rather than an inalienable description of identity.
What you do.
Another approach to the question of who you are might be through describing what you do. I could say for instance, I am a business man, a blogger, and am involved in adult education. If I were describing myself professionally, which was the traditional 20th century way of defining oneself. (Not that I’m personally making any money blogging, but one lives in hope ).
Or I might describe what I do outside of my profession. I am a family man, I love to read, I enjoy going to the movies, I write, I study, I tell stories, I enjoying socialising, physical exercise etc.
The problem or the limit with this, is that what you do, be it professionally, or personally, changes. Well let’s hope it changes, if it remains static you would make one hell of a boring dinner guest. As you change and evolve, what you do changes and your interests change. Well most of them do anyway, maybe some don’t and that might be a clue to the answer we are looking for. But generally speaking what you do is subject to change, or has the potential for change, so it too cannot be a completely reliable indicator of who you really and truly are in the final analysis. At best it could be a description of who you are being right now.
But then the question is: is there not some deeper identity under the facade of who you are being? We frequently say things to others such as you are not yourself, or you can be so much more, or this isn’t you, etc. This suggests the idea that this ‘you‘ or ‘me‘ has a fundamental authentic identity beyond what we are doing and being.
So what the hell is it?
Your beliefs and prejudices
This is another area which is frequently used to answer the question of identity, i.e. I am my belief system.
So I might say: well I believe in Jung, or I believe in justice, or I believe in God, or I believe in this country, or I believe in the future, or I believe in transcendence, and so on. You can see how this can be expanded to include all interests, passions, loves, hates, prejudices, beliefs, etc.
Once again these can change, and mostly do. Even if you say I believe in justice, chances are that belief- what you mean by saying such a thing, is very different to what you meant ten years ago. Or let’s hope so anyway .
So once again I’m not convinced that this is a completely reliable indicator of who you are.
One of the more promising candidates for understanding who you are, and communicating this sense of identity to others, is your personal story i.e. your life narrative. This is closer to what is meant by personal identity in the 21st century.
In the 21st century people no longer want to know ‘what you do’ but ‘who you are’, and by ‘who you are’ they mean essentially two things: your network, i.e. your social network, and your story. This is about meaning, that is to say that a meaning emerges from your life story, and this meaning is considered to communicate something significant and essential about your identity.
Now this idea I find quite appealing, and I have some experience with it. One of my interests is storytelling, and in particular narrative storytelling. In the form that I have learned this technique a story is prepared about some or other personal experience and it is told in a ten to fifteen minute oral form. (In other words you tell the story, rather than write it down.). And in my experience the story can very meaningful, and often quite moving.
I spent a few years writing a dramatic memoir An Existentialists’ Dream: a Jungian Novel. This started out as an attempt to assimilate a period of great personal change in my life, from the year 2000 to 2007, and to come to terms with a life changing dream that I had in 2003. But by the time I finished writing it, and after numerous edits, it was roughly speaking the story of my life. This too was a very satisfying, although painstaking at times, form of expression which helped my unique and personal sense of identity to emerge; at least for me, as yet I haven’t had the courage to publish the book.
The above acknowledgement to the power of personal stories notwithstanding, I am not convinced that this is the final word on who you are. For one thing the story is a product of culture, it is in a sense unnatural- like all culture, and it is an abstraction. How on earth can a story, even your life story, be an accurate and complete description of identity? You could say it is an emergent identity. But that it is the final word on who you are I’m not convinced.
Where does your attention go?
This is a Buddhist idea. That in the final analysis, what you are, is simply consciousness. And not the contents of consciousness, such as identity, which is always going to be a construction, and an imperfect one at that. Despite the idea of a Unitarian religion which captures the essence of the different religions and does away with the minor details on which they differ, I cannot agree with the idea of Buddhism, in this sense, being compatible with Christianity.
Simply because, the ‘good news’ of Christianity is not really the eternal salvation of your soul, but rather the eternal salvation of your ego. Meaning your sense of ego identity. This is what makes Christianity and Islam distinct (Judaism as well, although less so) from the Eastern ideal. The idea that you personally can go to heaven, this is a quite literal idea, it is not a metaphor for some deeper philosophy. In order for this idea to hold water there needs to be a distinct sense of ego identity, and an identity which has permanence to it.
As you can see here, this question of who you are is not an unimportant one, not if you belong the Western religious tradition anyway. The Eastern tradition is very different; it is the exact opposite. It is the obliteration of the illusion of ego identity which leads to Satori (personal and absolute redemption from suffering). In the Eastern tradition it is the very idea of personal identity that is the cause of all the suffering in the first place, once you transcend this illusion you are liberated from suffering.
So there is a slight disconnect in these two traditions.
In this sense I am a Westerner. I believe in the possibility of eternal life. The idea that the ego can transcend the existence of the body; that it is not inalienably linked to the physical plane. Nevertheless there is something of tremendous value in the Buddhist conception of attention. And I would say it is something which you need to understand if you are to have any shot at redemption in the Eastern or Western sense.
Who you are can be understood as where is your attention. That which you focus your attention on is that which you are and increasingly become.
The possibility of creating a real sense of identity, a self if you will, requires a lot of attention, attention directed in a very specific way. Every thought you have creates mould of the future, and then you step into that mould. And eventually you become that mould. Or maybe a better way of saying this is- that mould becomes an expression of you, without necessarily reducing you to the mould.
Your attention is limited, what do you focus it on? This is an important question to consider. Attention is amongst our most precious of commodities, maybe the most precious. Actually I would say the three commodities attention, time and energy are our most precious and limited commodities.
Children and animals instinctively know this. The way a child perceives your love is directly proportional to the attention you focus of them. To such an extent, that even negative attention is preferable to no attention.
Whilst your attention is fragmented across to wide a sphere of activity it is difficult to achieve anything meaningful. Meaningful achievement in any area of life including establishing your identity requires sustained attention.
A friend of mine Leo Babauta, blogs exclusively on this topic, how to declutter your life at Zen habits. To the extent that this is an important question in modern life, Leo is amongst the top 10 most popular bloggers in the world at the moment.
Wise words from a Holy Man
Let me leave you with a story.
My brother Michael once made friends with a Holy Man who had spent his life studying the various religious traditions. One day Michael asked him,
‘What is enlightenment? Is it really possible?’
Holy Man, ‘Do you really want to know?’
Holy Man, ‘Turn your attention to it.’
So with that I leave you. If you really want to know the answer the question: who are you really? Turn your attention to it. And I hope that this blog has, to some small degree, started that process and given you some ideas of where you might look. It’s up to you now to take it further.
Until next time.