A while back, someone down the pub asked me if I had figured out who I was before I got married – the silent implication, of course, being that they had a particular cynicism towards long-term relationships and so viewed it as something I clearly rushed into and will inevitably regret (or maybe that’s projection, I dunno, but it’s a reasonable inference when you meet a twenty-something divorcee). I made a fairly wry reply along the lines of “yes, I did”, something about the internet, and moved on. I’d never really given much thought to the question of “who I am” up to that point.
More recently, I have given it some thought. And that thought has lead me to the conclusion that it is a totally bullshit question.
Really, what is it even asking? If you don’t know this, you can’t really generate an answer. At least give me a sample paper with some relevant answers here. Who am I? Is it my name – no, that’s just a label. Is it my occupation – no, because you’re not your job (unless you are, or whatever). It’s not my gender, sex, race, sexuality – those are just random attributes associated with yourself, they’re not “yourself”. It’s not my hobbies, clubs I’m involved with, political opinions – those are things I “do”, not “am”. Scratch those off the list of reasonable answers and you’re not left with much.
Now, at this point I could just say “E-Prime” and have done with it, but really that’s something else entirely. After all, we’d still want to figure out what the question is asking by phrasing it in E-Prime. As pointed out above, the question certainly isn’t asking for a list of attributes. E-Prime could help us tell when a casual “Who are you?” can easily be answered with “Agents Mulder and Scully, FBI”, but that oh-so-deep-and-meaningful version renders out less well in it.
So what could it mean? Does it ask you to describe your “essence”? Perhaps, but even then you’ve replaced bullshit with more bullshit. What the hell does “essence” even mean? It’s like some form of dualism, but more abstract and more full of itself. It’s asking for something more detailed than just a list of attributes and more qualitative than quantitative, requiring some thought and discussion rather than some box ticking, and yet it has to be simple and fundamental to you, and you alone. It’s supposed to capture the thing that makes you “you”, and not someone else. In this respect, the question is more like “who are you?”, not “who are you?”. Still, this doesn’t help us answer it.
In truth, there is no one right answer to it and there’s no one right interpretation of the question. The best we can do is say that who I “am” is really a big detailed description of my attitudes, behaviours, thoughts, opinions, all across a range of subjects, that aren’t just regurgitating what someone else has told you to think, that describes how I act and react and what I will think at any given moment for any given situation because that’s certainly going to be at least consistent. This is what people are asking for; and answering this is the only response that makes sense because all of that sort of stuff satisfactorily describes who you are.
This brings me back to the original point of someone hoping that I “discovered who I am” before a fairly arbitrary marker in my life – and it brings up why the question is full of even more bullshit than it appears at first sight.
Nothing in that list of opinions, ideas, attitudes or behaviours is fixed any more than the atoms in my body are fixed and unchanging. I “am” not the same person I was when I got married. I “am” not the same person I was when I was asked that by some randomer in a bar somewhere a year and a bit later. I hardly consider an opinion or attitude of mine valid if it was written more than a few months ago. I’m happy with this constant change. If I was going to have the same opinion of myself a year from now, there would be absolutely no point in living. I may as well consider myself at the peak of personal development and throw myself under a train because there’d be literally nothing else to do.
So why would I ever need to figure out “who I am” at any one point in time? Why would I even consider that even a valid thing to attempt? Who I am is whatever is sitting in front of you right now. It’s what I do, it’s what I think, it’s how I behave and how I react. Check back in five minutes to see if there’s been any improvement.