Who Are You This Time?

If I felt like it, I could neatly sum myself up, in bland, statistical data, the sort of stuff that can be filled out into neat boxes on a beige-colored form. I could sum you up, too, with information like your date of birth, Tax File number, and middle name, if you have one. Such information is used by organisations like the Bureau of Statistics, the Tax Department, the Government and the National Criminal Check Authority to create a file that is used to identify us, but they are not the things that make us who we are.

The jobs of staff who do the data entry, (I’m pretending for a moment that it’s not done by robots) or file those forms, could be so much more interesting if the forms included questions that really asked us to reveal something about ourselves. What songs make you cry? Do you have any friends that you’ve known since primary school? What was the last book you read that you simply had to tell someone else about? Sadly, these are not things that the ATO or Centrelink are interested in keeping on file.

What constitutes a unique identity? Ask a forensic scientist, and they would say it’s the DNA that they analyse from samples of human blood, hair, saliva, semen, and skin. Ask the police, they’d say it’s our fingerprints. Ask a bank – they will accept our Drivers Licence and a utilities bill showing our current address.

But these are not the things that make us who we are. What are the defining traits that make us who we are, a completely unique human being, living in a world currently populated by nearly 7.5 billion humans at time of writing?

Each of us will probably have a different answer to that question – our opinion about that is part of what makes us who we are.

Each of us places value on certain aspects of ourselves, the things that we use to define ourselves. Some people are very definite about how they see themselves, while others – and I count myself in this lot – are not as clear about our defining traits.

Two compliments I’ve received that I remember most fondly are: that I’m good at bringing people together (this, or something to this effect, was said in the context of keeping conversation going between two or three parties who did not know one another at a social event), and that I use people’s names a lot and thus make them feel at ease. What it says about me that I value those more than any other compliments I’ve received, I’m not sure. (Actually, to be honest, there is a third, which was that I am a fantastic dancer! I was pretty chuffed with that, since this was only about 5 years ago and was passed on by my daughter, from a mum who’d been at a social event with me on the weekend!)

Perhaps those compliments pleased me most because they surprised me, and revealed something about myself that I did naturally, without any conscious effort. In contrast, I received a compliment just this past weekend, from a woman who laughed quite genuinely when I casually remarked that I wasn’t cool enough to drink in a certain bar, and told me that I was totally wrong. Her assessment had to be based solely on my appearance since we’d only met about 15 minutes earlier. That was nice, but I processed her compliment differently, because I am aware that looking cool is something I consciously aim for (within reason – I’m old enough to know what would just look silly and what is “not me”). So I received that compliment by thinking it was nice she thought that, not as confirmation that what she said was correct on any empirical level. (After all, as we know, what is cool is a relative judgement.)

How would I define myself? I struggle with these kinds of questions, for example when they are asked in job interviews, although obviously I try to plan answers in advance. What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? And more interestingly, though never asked in job interviews, what has led me to being the person I am today?

Some may say (as I believe Dumbledore did in one of the Harry Potter books) that we are an accumulation of each choice we make as we go through life. I think this is close to my thoughts on how our identity is formed.

What makes us unique is a complex blend of our lived experience with our perspective on that experience, and the meaning we make from it. It’s a concoction that will never be the same for any two people. For example, on the surface it might appear as if my siblings and I had very similar childhoods, but we each experienced the very same events with an autonomous consciousness, making our own meaning from what went on around us.

When our mother had her first nervous breakdown, and was hospitalised for a few weeks, for example, I was about six, and my siblings were approximately 4, 3, and newly born. My brother F, the newborn, couldn’t have had any conscious thoughts about what was happening at the time, but will have been affected by the event in a very different way than I was because we were at different stages of our lives. Conversely, when each of us were at a particular age, there were differences in the environment and people around us. When I was a teenager, for example, I’d incite the wrath of both parents, resulting in hitting, shouting and heated tension that permeated throughout the whole house, if I dared to try and watch an afternoon  TV show as innocuous as Young Talent Time, but by the time the sixth child was a teen, my parents would say goodnight to him as he sat up watching TV into the night, and leave him to watch whatever he wanted. All of those moments and our individual experiences of them, contribute to the large and complex picture of who each of us are today.

Outside of beige paperwork, in the real world it’s those other aspects of people that we find most interesting. It’s those things that draw us to them, often without even knowing it. I have friends I’ve known for decades without knowing their middle name. There are very few for whom I would know their birthday, until Facebook reminds me. In most cases, I don’t even know my friend’s addresses although I might know how to get to their house – I’ve just never needed to register what number it is in the street.

The sorts of things I’ll probably know about my friends is whether they are someone who is decisive or someone who mulls things over, or someone dealing with so many difficult things going on in their life that I have to be patient because their decision-making is dependent on a whole lot of other unpredictable people. I’ll know if they are someone who is naturally compassionate to others, or someone who is lacking in real empathy. I’ll know if they are funny, fun-loving, easy going, or perhaps intense, and only fun in small doses. I’ll know if they are the overly confident type that likes to sit in the front row at a theatre show advertising “audience interaction” or whether, on seeing that notice, they, like me, skuttle quickly up to the middle of the back row and cower in their seat, hoping to blend into the crowd.

Those are things that I register, and file away, about people I know.

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6 Comments

  1. Andrew

     /  October 12, 2016

    “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” Gandhi

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    • Very true. But what does Gandhi say about where those beliefs, at the start of that chain, come from? My thoughts are that they come from what we are taught, and from the meanings we make of things, which in our formative years at least, is usually based on what we’ve been taught and what we’ve experienced (because sometimes, of course, what we are taught conflicts with what we actually experience.)

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  2. The most interesting question I was ever asked at an interview was “What would other people in a crowded room say about you?” I share your knack for smoothly bridging the silence between folk but again – it’s unconscious. Effortless. Maybe borne out of too much exposure to the awkwardness in others combined with the comfort from making people laugh. The way you read people is similar. The tell-tales and indicators of their comfort zones and the spaces they occupy. Lovely post. Got me thinking.

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  3. The Dhammapada begins with the words ‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.’ (trans F. Max Muller) and while I agree that experience helps mould us, I think the text has missed something very important. While our individual experiences do influence what we are, sometimes deeply and ineradicably (for example, someone who has been savaged by a dog may fear and avoid dogs for the rest of his life), an important part of our nature is the predispositions we are born with. Shakespeare might have written ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in our DNA’. While one person becomes a tennis champion and another a renowned surgeon, a third becomes a great artist. These inborn abilities, that can be honed but not created, profoundly affect who and what each person is and no individual can take over the roles of the others.

    Who I am depends on who is asking the question. It also depends on why the question is being asked. The human brain is a small vessel into which to pour all the knowledge in the universe and to know anything at all, we have to divide knowledge into small chunks that the brain can process. These will be the small chunks we think are relevant to the question we want to answer. Anything else will be left aside.

    From the point of view of people who know me, or something of me, I have been husband, lover, teacher, father, friend, rival, petrol pump attendant, census data, medical record, library assistant, job interviewee and so on (and on). All are true but all are partial and therefore incomplete and therefore misleading. No one can gather all the pieces and put Humpty Dumpty together. In a word, no one knows me, really knows me, not even I myself. Nor do I know, really know, anyone else, even those I love most deeply.

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    • That final thought is something we can either embrace or feel despondent about. I sometimes have one of those responses or the other, depending how I’m feeling. When I was younger I thought that the ideal was to find someone who understood everything about me but as you say, now I think that we all run too deep for any other single person to know everything about us. Some people will know some things about us and others will know different things. This partly depends what that person looks for and values. We are complex. And we love other people, despite the fact that we will never know everything about them.

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