If someone asked you to describe yourself, what would you say?
Most people will answer by talking about their career:
“I work for a multi-national company.”
“I manage 500 people.”
“I’m looking for a job.”
“I’m studying at Harvard University.”
“I’m an investor.”
“I’m a stay at home mother.”
“I own 139 properties.”
Some people define themselves as ‘victims’, just the product of their circumstances:
“I always do everything for everyone but all I get in return is being [turned on / shunned / criticized / abused / made to feel bad / taken for granted, etc].
“I’m a survivor.”
“I’m a single mother raising my children alone.”
Other people will define themselves by a particular character trait:
“I’m an introvert.”
“I’m a nerd.”
Some people will define themselves by their marital status, especially if they’re divorced or widowed.
Still others will define themselves by their religious beliefs:
“I’m an atheist.”
“I’m an orthodox Jew.”
And then you’ll find those who don’t know how to answer the question, so they try to dodge it:
“I’m nobody special.”
“I don't know.”
“I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Isn't it the eternal question as Paul Gauguin beautifully depicted ? “ Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
But are any of these responses really capturing the true beauty, the true essence of who you really are?
Even if you answered very fully:
“I run a successful accountancy practice in Connecticut, and my hobbies include writing free verse and playing the oboe. I’m married to a wonderful woman - my second marriage - and we have two teenager children. I’m a big believer in an open economy, I usually vote Republican, I’m quite a deep personality who thinks a lot about the meaning of life and often worries that I’m not quite doing what I should be with my life, and my favorite author is Thomas Hardy.”
Ok, so that’s a pretty [full] response, but if we’re honest, we can see that it doesn’t really capture the essence of a person.
So who are we, really?
There’s a short answer to that question which will do for now, but we will get into the longer and more complex answer a little later on, but slowly slowly. We can’t move too fast with this stuff without triggering off an all-out war from the backseat driver who’s got us all fooled that he is really us.
So for now, let’s try to define who we are by who we aren’t.
We aren’t our jobs.
People change jobs all the time, housewives become CEOs, car mechanics become taxi drivers, lawyers become authors or chefs. Especially in today’s hustle economy, no-one can really define themselves by their job even in the short-term, because the job, and the role a person performs in society is constantly changing and evolving.
So we aren’t our jobs.
We aren’t our circumstances.
There are so many rags-to-riches stories out there, and probably even more riches-to-rigs stories. Today’s front page socialite who has the world at her feet could so easily be tomorrow’s washed-up drug addict who’s continuing to sell copies of the National Enquirer for very different, unglamorous reasons.
Circumstances can and do change. And this tends to be the rule, not the exception in our lives. Sometimes, we perceive those changes as positive, like when we move up the property ladder to a bigger house, or when we get a promotion, or get some other lucky break, or enjoy some other delicious moment of serendipity when our circumstances fill us with joy.
But if you define yourself as a loser and a victim, or as a winner and a superman, then what happens to you when your circumstances change?
Let’s consider the case of Christopher Reeve, the powerfully-built actor who embodied the conventional idea of how a ‘superman’ should look and how he should act. On screen, Reeve was the caped crusader with supernatural powers who used his physical prowess and really handy flying abilities to save the world from baddies and natural disasters.
Off-screen, Reeve seemed to carry a lot of his character with him, and was a highly-successful, attractive and physically active man. Until that fateful day when he had a terrible accident whilst riding his horse and broke his neck.
Overnight, the muscular, powerful ‘superman’ turned into a total quadriplegic, almost entirely reliant on other people to help him do even the simplest things in life like eat and get dressed.
Most people would have been absolutely crushed in this enormous reversal in their circumstances. But Reeve wasn’t most people, and he rose to the challenge of expressing the essence of who he really was in completely different, non-physical terms.
For the decade of life that remained to him after his accident, Reeve was a tireless campaigner for disability rights and for disabled people.
It’s maybe the biggest irony of his life that he pulled off his most heroic role, and the biggest positive and lasting impact on the world, when he was physically paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
A superman indeed.
But the point is, we aren’t our circumstances. Whether or not you have wealth, health, good fortune, a big house, good looks, loads of friends, physical prowess, intellectual abilities - all of those things can and do change from day to day, sometimes subtly, and often less so.
So we aren’t our circumstances.
We aren’t our collected personality traits, either.
While this has the surface appearance of being a little closer to capturing the real essence of who we are, it’s still got the same limitation that applies to the other answers we’ve discussed: people’s personalities can and do change over time.
If a person is continually trying to work on themselves, and continually trying to uproot negative character traits, beliefs and behaviors, overtime their personalities will become more sparkly, spiritually shiny and beautiful.
And if we’re not trying to do that work, than typically overtime, our backseat driver will keep diverting us down more and more emotional dead-ends and black holes, and we’ll increasingly find ourselves sharing a ride with more and more feelings of anger, bitterness, resentments and regrets.
Which doesn’t make for a nice day out, by any measure.
So when some people say things like: “I’m just an angry person”, what they’re really trying to do is control their environment by getting themselves stuck in a persona that actually, really isn’t the true them.
“Watch out, I’ll get angry if you try to pull me out of my comfort zone, or expect me to change how I see the world, or react to things!”
It’s like posting a ‘Beware Dog’ sign on your perimeter. Statements like this are warning shots to try and keep people away from the real essence of who you are.
But guess what: you really aren’t the person who’s sticking those signs up - the backseat driver is.
And plenty of angry people calmed down and stopped been so aggressive and edgy once they learnt where their feelings of anger were really coming from, and how to deal with them properly.
And most importantly of all, when they realized that calling themselves ‘an angry person’ actually didn’t’ reflect the true reality of who they really are.
When you give your child a loving hug, are you an angry person?
When you say sorry to a friend for forgetting to calm them on their birthday, are you an angry person?
When you make a huge effort to cook a nice meal for your family, are you an angry person?
The honest answer has to be no. In that moment, with that action, you aren’t being an angry person at all.
So then, who are we, really?
If we’re not the guy in the backseat, and we’re not a collection of our successes, failures, job descriptions and labels, then who are we, really?
Who we really are:
Who we are is expressed in our collective impact on the world, both for the good and for the bad.