An old friend of mine has gone through some rough times over the last few years. During that time he found religion. Shortly after that he became more patriotic and conservative, and started announcing his newly found political beliefs without any evidence of reconciling the differences between his earlier, more liberal, philosophies. He simply abandoned them, along with many of the things that made him the person he was at that time.
Someone else’s values are their own business, but I always question the motives behind such an extreme change in anyone. This is especially true when a person ties up so much of themselves, so much of their identity, into a particular set of ideologies. And it makes me wonder just how much of what we are can be labeled or defined by the things outside of ourselves that we fervently believe in, or cling to.
Are we who we are, are we the things we do, or are we what we believe in? What makes us us?
I like to think that I am my own man, but today I considered the possibility of me going through this life, not as an artist, not as a writer, but just as a human being. The more I tried to picture it, the more I realized my entire existence is validated by the things I do with my time. I write and paint – therefore I am. I’m no different from my friend who has changed so much, my friend who seems to have classified himself in order to get through a life that he felt needed more meaning. Is that the game plan? Do we all do that?
A biologist might view human beings as a bunch of living parts working in unison to run the bodies that contain them. A very religious person may see us as part of God’s perfect plan, making us in His own image. Spiritualists might view people as housing units for immortal souls that reincarnate when the time comes. I personally like the quantum physics view that we are made up of atoms that are almost entirely space, we are all connected, and we can best be described as ‘fields of possibilities’.
But none of those perspectives helps give me any real understanding of who I am.
I’m sitting in my back porch as I write this, sipping on a cold beer. I am also nursing a sick cat back to health. Earlier today, I cracked the overhead light cover in the kitchen while replacing the fluorescent bulbs, so I’ll have to replace that. I need to cook dinner for my wife and me, and there’s still more art to work on this evening. I would like to blow off all my responsibilities, open up another beer, and start working on the next chapter of my book. But I can’t. I can’t because I see my commitment to my responsibilities as a practical function of who I am. Too much emphasis on practicality can be the death of the soul, but if I become less practical and more spontaneous will I no longer be me?
So who am I? And who are we? We are functional, but we are dreamers. But we often, too often, dream about our functions – the things we do that we enjoy, or perhaps the things we’ve never done but would like to. Years ago, the friend I mentioned earlier wrote down some graffiti he saw scribbled on a rest room wall in Ybor City. It said, “Wake up! You are not what you own. You are your dreams.” This all sounds well and good, but in my dreams I own stuff. I dream of a beautiful house on property my wife and I own on Lookout Mountain in Georgia. I imagine waking up late one morning, grabbing a hot cup of coffee, and walking out onto the back porch with her on a crisp day in Autumn. Hundreds of leaves swirl around us in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange as we gaze out into the forest that is ours. I dream of having friends over to play pool and drink good wine and talk about really cool and important stuff.
And then I wonder if that person will be the same person who is currently imagining this future scenario.
Are we the combination of our values, our dreams, our experiences and relationships, and the labels we attach to ourselves as we try to pin down some definition of self in a world that seems to defy logic and meaning?
Or am I just overthinking this? My cats don’t seem to bother themselves with such questions, and they appear to be perfectly happy. Or maybe they already have all the answers.
So, who are we?