Who Am I? When we are asked to deliver a Who Am I? presentation with limited time, to a group of people we may not know very well, we will usually talk about our background, career milestones, achievements, hobbies and family. This essay addresses some aspects of Who Am I? that are important, but which I probably wouldn’t address in that presentation. A more interesting and profound question might be:
Who Am I, really? (a reality check)
Below, I share a few perspectives and “insights” I’ve had thinking about Who Am I, Really? – beyond what would normally come up in casual conversation wth friends and associates. Some of these may resonate with you, and may even inspire some thought about your own Who Am I, Really?
At the bottom of this post, I offer a bit more explanation about how I arrived at each particular perspective or insight.
1. Who Am I? I am a middle-aged man. I have already lived more than 2/3 of my life. While I hope to attain greater wisdom and continue to contribute as I grow older, my strength, agility, faculties and vitality are inevitably declining – no matter how healthy I eat, how much I work out, or how diligently I follow the rules of good health and longevity.
2. Who Am I? I am a creature of biological evolution. I am the genetic result of hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution, and thousands of generations of human evolution, culminating in being conceived by Dutch and Rosemary Schoultz, and raised according to their values and culture. I have very little responsibility for a large part of Who I am.
3. Who Am I? I am an American. I grew up immersed in a culture that encourages and rewards the entrepreneurial spirit, is infused with confidence and optimism, and believes in each person’s inherent right (almost duty!) to re-invent themselves. I have a typically Americans faith in the future and my ability to shape it with hard work and good will. This is not at all a universal value or perspective. To say “I am an American” says so much more about me than I often realize.
4. Who Am I? I am also my shadow. I try to think of myself as basically a good man who means well. But I can also often be self-righteous and overbearing, oblivious to my surroundings, narcissistic and self-centered, argumentative and annoying, selfish and entitled, judgmental and intolerant, insensitive to the fears and insecurities of others, much more interested in receiving than in giving attention and affection.
5. Who Am I? I am a commodity. My identity, and how I perceive the world continue to be heavily influenced by marketing and the media. Like all of us who are actively engaged on-line, searching for information, purchasing goods, interacting with social media, and other modern forms of communications, I am a commodity within the world economy, and am vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited.
6. Who am I? I am but an instant, on a speck. The Universe is immense beyond the scope of anyone’s ability to imagine it. In this universe, I am the rough equivalent of a hyper-active quark, racing around inside an atom, within a molecule, in a drop of water, some where deep in the Pacific Ocean. The distance to the edge of the observable universe is about 46 billion light years. Forty-six billion light years is a long way. Eternity is a long time.
7. Who Am I? Most people don’t particularly care. Much of what is important to me in my life matters to hardly anyone else, and whatever they may say, most people are not particularly interested in my achievements or failures, or what I think, say or do, except as they may be affected. And that is OK – because we are all very busy living our own lives, facing our own challenges. And when I’m honest with myself, I’m the same way toward most others, though I’m trying hard to truly care more.
8. Who Am I? I am uncertain what “I” am.
Is there such a thing as an immutable self or soul? I don’t know. Author and podcaster Sam Harris makes a strong case that what we think of as our “self” is really an illusion. I have been brought up to believe in a separate “CEO” self, but I am willing to accept the possibility that there is no “self” separate from my memories, experiences, impulses, bio-chemistry, etc. And yet I don’t dismiss other possibilities either – of another dimension of ourselves or of reality, of which we may only get occasional glimpses. In the not-so-well-known words of former NFL linebacker Dick Butkis, “There’s a whole lot of shit going on that we don’t know about.” Yet.
9. Who Am I? I am mortal. Having recently been with my father during his last days, my own mortality has come into clearer focus. Watching him live and watching him die has taught me how to live better. I will try hard not to take being alive for granted. Unless I die suddenly and unexpectedly, I will someday face the final challenge that my father faced so well: to die with dignity and courage. And then, I shall be no more. And within a couple of generations, there will be no one alive who will remember me.
10. Who Am I? I am my father’s son. As my father finished his life and left us behind, I realized that I am an important part of my his legacy. I share a junior-varsity version of many of his virtues, as well as my own version of many of his weaknesses. I believe I have a responsibility to his life and legacy, to chart a path that is uniquely my own, but a path that contributes positively to the legacy of my parents, and my ancestors. That is my answer to Viktor Frankl’s challenge: What does life expects of us?
For me, these are liberating insights.
To try to answer the question Who Am I Really? and give ourselves that “reality check,” we must step away from our daily concerns, our daily “melodrama,” and take a much larger perspective. The above insights simplify so much for me personally.
What really matters?
Love, joy, relationships, my personal sense of purpose.
There is a quote from Mother Theresa that I love: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
A quark in the Pacific Ocean, who is here for such a short time, can really only do “small” things…..but we can try to do small things as well as we can, for their own sake, and with a focus on love, joy, relationships, and in accordance with our own personal sense of purpose.
BELOW, I OFFER A BIT OF BACKGROUND AS TO HOW I ARRIVED AT THESE “INSIGHTS”:
1.Who Am I? I am a middle-aged man. These days, when I look in the mirror, I ask myself “Who is THAT guy?” I see a white-haired old guy, who is creeping steadily and (it seems) ever more rapidly toward the far side of middle age, on his way to approaching the early stages of that next age…. I was recently looking at pictures of myself in photo albums from 35 years ago. Who was THAT guy? And what the hell happened to him while I wasn’t paying attention.
2. Who Am I? I am a creature of biological evolution.In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari has a powerful message: Much more than many of us realize, we are the product of millions of years of genetic, social, and cultural evolution. Our biochemistry largely determines how we feel and react to our environment – by processes that are often beyond our understanding. Without being completely deterministic, Harari makes the case that choices we make are to a large degree genetically, socially, culturally baked into Who We Are.
3. Who Am I? I am an American. While hiking up Kilimanjaro, I spent a lot of time talking to the Tanzanian guides, several of whom grew up in Masai villages. Their fathers had multiple wives and families, often living in different villages, and these guides often had dozens of half brothers and sisters. This is as normal to them as the nuclear family is to me. I’ve lived overseas multiple times, in cultures where people do not believe that opportunities and possibilities are unlimited, do not value privacy, independence, freedom of choice and expression nearly to the same degree I do, and have a very different world view than I and my American friends. My beliefs and values are not universal, nor indeed are they shared by much of the world. They are not “right.” But they are American.
4. Who Am I? I am also my shadow. I recently read a short article about our “shadow” – that dark side of who we are that we often don’t like to admit or look at. The shadow is a concept developed by Carl Jung that refers to aspects of our personality that we often choose to reject and repress. It represents parts of ourselves that we don’t like—or that we think society won’t like – so we push those parts down into our unconscious psyches. We distance ourselves psychologically from those behaviors, emotions, and thoughts that may threaten our positive self image.
5. Who Am I? I am a commodity. Social Scientists, marketers, and web researchers are able to examine patterns of my behavior, the sites I view on the web, my interaction with social media, my on-line purchases, my credit card records. They can then review other information about me that is in the public domain, and can predict with stunning accuracy, my predilections and preferences, my personality strengths and weaknesses, my values, and more. These observable patterns make it possible to cleverly and subtly manipulate my choices and preferences, to influence how I vote, live, and with whom I associate. Much of our “private” identity is an illusion.
6. Who Am I? I am but an instant, on a speck The 60 minutes episode of 1 October 2017 included a piece about the Hubble Space telescope, and shared insights about the universe that have come from recent improvements in its ability to see deep into space. Astro physicists have recently determined that there are likely close to two trillion galaxies in the universe. TWO TRILLION! Our own Milky Way, one of those two trillion galaxies, has over 100 billion stars. One of the physicists on that 60 minutes episode estimated that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand…. on the entire earth. And it is likely that most of these trillions of billions of stars have many planets. The universe is believed to be 13.8 billion years old, and to have a constantly expanding radius of 46.6 billion light years. Hard to wrap our heads around all that.
7. Who Am I? Most people don’t particularly care. Playing golf, I realized that as pleased as I may be after making a great shot, or as disappointed as I may be after missing a 3 foot putt for a round-saving birdie, nobody else really cares. Nobody really cares how I play, unless it impacts them and their game. I have realized that this insight applies to nearly everything I do. Very few people really care what I do, except as it affects them. I am the only one who really cares how well I do at my various endeavors or hobbies, whether I excel or bomb at handling any particular challenge. A very few will indeed be truly happy or sad for me, at least for a moment or two. Others will be envious or resentful of my success, or secretly pleased to see me stumble, or whose first thought will be how they might personally benefit from my gain or loss. But most will be essentially indifferent – they have their own lives to live, their own challenges to face and overcome. This has been for me a great insight.
8. Who am I? I am uncertain what “I” am. In his book Waking Up Sam Harris makes a strong case that there is no separate “self” inside our head, looking out on the world and making decisions, ruling our minds, bodies, intentions and actions. When we refer to ourselves, we are referring to a self that is no more than an amalgamation of memories, experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and impulses, and the bio-chemistry that feeds our brain. Some forms of Buddhism also argue that the “self” is an illusion.
9. Who am I? I am mortal. My father recently passed away and I was with him in his last days. That was a first for me – being with someone close and important to me at the end of their life. My father served 43 years in the Navy, was a charismatic leader, larger than life to me and many others, who always seemed 10 years younger than his age, with twice the energy and vitality of his peers. He died at age 92, and in his last months, we helplessly watched him fade into a mere shadow of his former self. He struggled valiantly to maintain his dignity and to keep that dying ember of vitality and benificence alive, finally succumbing, as we all must. I saw Death – the great equalizer – in action. It comes to us all – the rich and the poor, the great and the common, the good and the bad.
10. Who Am I? I am my father’s son. I and many of my more mature friends have recognized patterns in our behavior that look very familiar – similar to patterns of behavior, decisions, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses of our parents. As I get older I’ve seen more and more of myself as a reflection of my father – and to a somewhat lesser, but still important degree – of my mother. This connection became ever more apparent to me as I’ve wandered into middle age, and as I watched my mother and father wander out of middle age into old age….