If you ask a small child who they are you will probably get a shrug of their shoulders as a main answer, and perhaps their name if not too shy to talk. From adults this form of answer will often illicit a laugh and nothing more, as if the child has not been able to answer the question to our satisfaction, but could have done better. They are, we would reason, only a child with no experience, no knowledge of themselves, freed from the problems of the world and kept, awaiting their change into adulthood, cocooned from the struggled and stress we, as adults know. And yet, this answer of just their name, one or two simple words, conveys exactly who they are. Their name is their outward identity; it is the call-sign that everyone else will use when referring to them; it is their mark throughout life; it is the one thing – unless they marry and decide to change – that will remain constant from their birth through to that final moment, and beyond in the memory of others. For a child, their name is who they are.
As we grow, this simple acceptance of us being what we are and without need of further explanation, changes. We find that we have to discover ourselves, in order to satisfy the demands of others: what do we do; what are our interests; what makes us special. And we have to assess ourselves, especially in a world which attempts to limp all beings together into a series of tight criteria, of consumer-friendly, pigeon-holed compatibility. As we grow we appreciate the necessity of fighting to remain an individual, whether we realise this in our conscious mind or not. We are confronted by the pressures of our peers and contemporaries to fit in, to toe-the-line, to be one of the group and a valuable member of society; as if being the latter cannot happen with an individual spirit, only with a mass-produced drone designed to conform, to obey, to be one of rather than to be One. The modern societal mantra could easily be:
People dull their wits with gibberish, and cannot use their eyes and ears.
Those unmindful when they hear, for all they make of their intelligence, may be regarded as the walking dead.
We forget our individuality when we wish – or are forced – to fit in, and then, I fear, we are not ourselves any more, we are a model of what is deemed, for the moment, to be the ideal.
Many fail to grasp what they have seen, and cannot judge what they have learned, although they tell themselves they know.
We reach a crisis in our lives when, suddenly, we see that we’ve been following the sheep all our lives, and those sheep have been guided onto the wrong path, away from the ‘me’, the individuality, the uniqueness until we are one of those sheep and no longer ourselves. We wear the same clothing, speak the same styles, accept the same information without questioning source, reliability, truth. And then, hopefully, we return to ourselves, to the child’s answer which contains everything everyone else needs to know: I am myself, and no other. I am responsible for myself, and no one else can take my blame. I am the constantly changing which is the same without being the same:
Just as the river where I step is not the same, and is, so I am as I am not.
The river we see before our eyes is not the same river as we saw a second ago, and will be a different river in one second’s time.
These are not my thoughts, not my expressions, but ones I have come across and ones which, when I think them through, bring me on to my own thoughts: I do not need to accept them, and they are not me, but I do consider their implications, and they have become a part of me; a big difference to what we are taught. They are the words of Heraclitus of Ephesus, written six hundred years before our modern era began, and as thought-provoking today as they must have been then. To me, just the beginning of a journey, as so many others have followed – whether they be termed Philosopher, Zen Master, deep thinker or fool – who have thought, considered, opinionated and, above all, shared for others to consider their path as a possibility:
Seekers of wisdom first need sound intelligence
and that intelligence can only come from trying a wide variety of different sources, of possibilities, and building our own understanding of ourselves from all these fountains. And yet, no matter how many years go by, no matter how much we think, discuss, learn, we will never really be able to answer that one question, the one that you pose: who am I.
A few days ago I had the great pleasure of reading Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian world by Kathy Chamberlain. Carlyle was a women of few personal means – all her wealth and belongings, in accordance with the times in England, were automatically the property of her husband upon marriage – who lived in an era when women writers were few and far between, when it was still necessary for a woman to take on a man’s name to achieve any sort of acceptance in the literary world. Her main fame, at the time, was that she married Thomas Carlyle, a world-renowned writer of books on history at the time who, over the decades has lost rank in importance, not least because of the interpretations today of his stance on slavery in the Americas. Her claim to fame today – she died in 1866 – is that of a brilliant letter writer, and her star continues to shine. I say great pleasure because her letters were inspiring, in many ways, spoke to my soul in many others. I had the feeling I could place myself in her times, having a certain knowledge of London any way, if not completely in her position as a woman, with all the social restrictions involved. And then I took up Clara Rilke-Westhoff, a biography by Marina Bohlmann-Modersohn which, while also be exceptionally well written, and also containing many letters and diary entries which inspired – she was a sculptress who studied under Rodin in Paris, and was married to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – but which changed my mood completely. Again, I could place myself in her surroundings, both in Paris and in Worpswede – and artistic colony near Bremen in Germany – but the mood was much darker, the problems this couple faced were far deeper. Women were also outsiders in the artistic communities, these bastions, as we see them today, of artistic freedom and, of course, in education. When I write that Westhoff-Rilke studied with Rodin, this is not the way we understand it today: she was allowed in his studio, she saw his work as a sculptor and he commented on her work as a sculptress, to the point of also giving her recommendations when the time came, but she did not study under him as a male sculptor would have. As a female she was not accepted in the European artistic world, much the same as Carlyle and other female writers having to accept a subordinate social and working position in Victorian London.
The two books, though, inspired more thoughts about myself and my position, my understanding of the past and present, my understanding of myself. As Wittgenstein wrote:
I should not like to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own
What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points.
Because if I had just taken the feelings created by one book, and left out the second entirely, I would not have learned. In this case, as is fairly obvious, learned something about myself and my reaction to the styles a boom is written in, to the stories they bring forth, to the characters they portray. These books, and many others, are the river flowing through my mind: always there; always changing. The letters that I have written while reading these individual works have been completely different; they have influenced me to a certain extent, changed the ‘me that I understood myself to have been into a new ‘me’ that I understand myself to be.
We do, of course, suffer outside influences: our lives would be fairly dull if there were no sights and sounds, no events or experiences to add to our mental collection, our evaluation of this life. How we evaluate these experiences, these occurrences which remain outside of ourselves, makes us what we are. They are part and parcel of the answer to your question, but more so when we think about what we have experienced, when we enjoy an event to its fullest in every possible way, rather than merely saying: yes, I was there and I saw that; file it away as a memory. Take these outside experiences away – and you know exactly what I am talking about when it comes to sensory perceptions – and we have nothing but ourselves. Heraclitus may well have written:
Applicants for wisdom do what I have done: inquire within
and clearly signalled that the answers are within ourselves, that we should explore our own minds, feelings, emotions, but this cannot be done without that foundation of knowledge, and the introspection would fail miserably were we not to take advantage of the insights offered by outside events, by life itself. The greatest thinkers of modern times – such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger (no matter what one may think of his politics) – only withdrew to their temporary lives as hermits to think and consider after they had taken as much from the world as they possibly could; and then they returned to give, and to receive once more. Without the inspiration provided by other writers, by other thinkers, their own thoughts would have been shallow and meaningless, obsessed with themselves and lacking in outside inspiration and light.
And if we cannot explain ourselves, how can we understand other people? How can we place ourselves in their shoes and see what they see each and every day? But, at the same time, how can we possibly ignore them and concentrate exclusively on ourselves? Without them we are a mere shell, lacking in understanding as we have no comparisons, no foundation upon which to work, no social norms, political ideals, ideas of faith to build our own thoughts and beliefs upon. Of course, it would take a lifetime to explain who we are to someone else, since there are so many influences, so many edges and corners, crooks and crannies to our soul, to our being, and no one, to the best of my knowledge at least, has that much free time; especially as the explanation would, of necessity, be an ongoing project.
I am poor choices, good choices, and genetics. I am the manifestation of circumstance.
Especially that last one. We make our own choices according to the possibilities offered us, according to circumstance, to belief, to our education and our understanding. We work on the information we have, whether it be in making a good choice or a bad one, and must always be prepared to accept the consequences. We are influenced by those around us, by our lifestyle, by our social position – which exists in all societies, no matter how equal and accepting they may claim to be, or offer themselves to be on the surface. We are influenced by the recommendations and actions of other people; there is not an event that goes by which doesn’t effect / affect us in one way or another, no matter how we may wish to deny it. Countless times we have heard the ‘if only…’ lamentation, and we will continue to hear it in the future. Rarer, the acceptance: I was given choices, I made my choices, I made bad choices. This is also who we are.
I could easily bring up a certain political election of recent months where, despite the passage of time, the one side is constantly looking back and trying to find someone else to blame for their loss. I could easily bring up the more recent election elsewhere, where one who was in the best possible position, destroyed it for egoistical reasons, and will undoubtedly now be looking for someone else to blame. I could just as easily bring up all the comments about ‘if we’d known that before…’ which are still being thrown about by those who could have known, if only they had opened their eyes and their ears, seen and heard. We, those of us who look, see; those of us who listen, hear; those of us who think, weigh up the possibilities as much as the benefits, or otherwise, before making a decision. But this is an ideal life, in my mind and often after the fact, and not the reality of a moment in time.
So, while I cannot answer your question as to who I am in any satisfactory manner, I can demonstrate, over time, some of the facets of what I might be, and allow you to delve and experience. Likewise, perhaps you will give me the opportunity to learn more about your thoughts, and about what makes the being you are / will be.