Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Weekend Philosopher: Identities Formed

Identities are tricky things.  Set yourself the task of telling someone who you are.  I dare you.  It isn't so easy.

In this scene from Babylon 5, a mysterious man named Sebastian asks Delenn who she is.  She gives her name, her title, a job description.  None of these answers are deemed acceptable.  While these answers may be useful for someone who needs to know about you, they don't truly touch on who we are.

In answering the question of who we are, it helps to consider all the factors that make us who we are.  When someone asks us the question "Who are you?" they usually want to know your name, or maybe the names of relatives or friends so they have some idea of how you fit in to the social fabric of the world.  They may say a lot about your background that helped to influence your development as a person, but no one can claim to know you through this information alone.  These things are not you.  After all, when someone steals your identity and uses it to spend your hard earned money, they haven't actually stolen who you are, though they may have influenced who you will become by impacting the way you trust people and interact with them.

I am of the opinion that part of who we are is a function of biology and the way our brains develop before we're even born.  This belief is enforced by having my own children.  I can say that my two boys started out with distinct personalities. Jude was the loud, high-maintenance child, and Lyle was the laid-back child. These character traits were visible from birth and inform the way they each react to given situations.  Some aspects of our person are an integral part of us and cannot be changed.

Even so, we learn from the environment in which we are raised.  Nurture plays as significant a role as nature.  That's why I get frustrated by the nature vs. nurture argument.  I think they work together and it would be silly to disregard one entirely in favor of the other.  

Our parents work to instill a given set of values in us.  Even parents who are abusive and neglectful instill values in their kids, though those values may ultimately be more harmful than anything else.  From a young age, we learn to trust authority (or not to), we learn how to interact with others, we learn not to steal or lie.  It's no accident that most people end up with the same religious beliefs and honoring the same traditions as their parents.  Our culture directs our growth and development in very real ways.  

This is why societal attitudes as a whole toward things like race and sexual orientation change rather slowly.  There is a distinctly generational way in which these perceptions change, because those who are raised with one set of values find it difficult to shake them, or may find it undesirable to do so.  To alter the way you look at the world is to, in some way, alter who you are in relation to the world.  This can be a distinctly uncomfortable proposition to face.

John Dewey said, "The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action."

Not only are we formed by the people around us, we are also formed by the choices we make.  When something goes wrong, we can choose to give up, or we can choose to look on the bright side.  We choose which career path to follow. Maybe we pursue a childhood passion that was ignited by an inspiring teacher. Maybe we follow in our parents' footsteps.  Or maybe we choose a path other than what our families want for us as a kind of rebellion.  Or maybe we choose a safe path, leaving behind the things we truly want to do.  We make these choices due to a multitude of factors we may not recognize.  Our choices have power, but they are not made in a vacuum.

To show you what I mean, say a child is raised in a family of criminals.  They have an unstable home life growing up and their parents are in and out of jail.  It might seem easy for them to assume the values of their parents and follow the same path.  But maybe they want something different.  Maybe they make the choice to have something different.  They may follow a different path, but their choice is influenced by the pain of their childhood.  Or maybe their personal disposition, which they've had their whole lives, makes them yearn for something different.

I like to say that we're in constant dialogue with our environment.  It speaks to us, and we respond with our actions.  We change our world, and we change it back.  Nothing remains exactly the same.

Sorting out the factors that make us who we are can be quite difficult and confusing.  How have the events and people in your life helped make you who you are today?  Which influence do you think is the most powerful in determining who a person becomes?

Lastly, I wanted to share this powerful video.  It's a little over twelve minutes long, but it's worth the time.  I was bullied as a kid, and though I try not to let that fact get me down, I can still feel the effects of it.  Remember, the way you treat others has the power to affect their reality in ways you may not imagine.  I would encourage people to be a positive factor in a person's life rather than a negative one.

1 comment:

  1. I find it's difficult to tell anyone who I really am if I don't know myself ;) I mean, I feel that I know myself but I don't always, in every single theoretical situation, know my own mind. I guess that goes for most people.