Become What You Are

Who am I?

It is a question of immense philosophical importance. Figuring it out is a lifelong project of negotiation, interpretation and contradiction. It takes on particular salience in modern society because, unlike past societies, we have so many avenues and opportunities for self-realisation. In Feudal society, you were born a serf and died a serf. For what it lacked in fulfilling opportunities, it compensated for in security. Your life may have been miserable, ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but you never had any doubts as to who you were or what you were meant to do. Modern society has disposed of the chains and fetters of Feudal society, but we likewise removed the security of knowing your place and purpose. The blessing of a free society is likewise a curse. Just as we are granted so many opportunities to define and realise ourselves, a failure to do so becomes so much more oppressive and excruciating.

As we live, we come to certain conclusions about what is important, what we want to do, what values we want to uphold and what behaviours, beliefs or attitudes we would like to transcend. We arrive at a definition of ourselves based upon what we have experienced, what we have thought, who we have been influenced by, and the feedback loop of our own thinking which brings it all together. Of course, this definition of identity is one that is firmly rooted in the past. Now perhaps this is just as it should be, but it is of no small importance.

Because, things change. You’re no longer the same person you once were. You might have a new job, go to new places, spend time with new people and think new thoughts. In fact, life being what it is, you cannot help but do this. It is inexorable. Yet, it is precisely at this crossroads, between the self you once were and the new self you are becoming, that we collide into contradiction.

We define ourselves through our history, and during the process of change, we look to our past to supply us with the resources necessary to make sense of the present. But, there comes a point, such as when being faced with a totally new circumstance (your first marriage, the first death of a loved one, a coming to terms of your own morality) or completely unable to deal with a past one, where looking to the past no longer suffices, and an entirely new approach is needed.

My suggestion is a renegotiation of the terms of agreement itself. Rather than asking ‘who am I’, we can consider asking ourselves ‘who do I want to be’. Unlike ‘who am I’, ‘who do I want to be’ pulls us to the future and demands of us, possibly for the first time in a long time, to use our imagination and begin furnishing for ourselves not just an identity, but a reality we wish to bring into being.

‘Man is infinitely more than what he would be if he were reduced to being what he is’ wrote Martin Heidegger in his lament on the question of ‘who am I’. The question ‘who am I’ has a centripetal quality to it. When we frame our life project like this, we revert to the past, to history, to the self-same, and in this sense, we ‘reduce’ ourselves because we cut ourselves off from our potential. In contradistinction, the question ‘who do I want to be’ has a centrifugal quality to it. It calls on us to, even for a moment, to reject or forget who we are (and all that is limiting in this conception of the self), and imagine a future which could be different. It is through furnishing an untold and yet non-existent future that we become so much more than we are.

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