Who Am I; Who Are You?

After resting for 45 minutes motionless, with acupuncture needles in my face, arms, abdomen, and legs, my doctor come into my room.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Peaceful,” I replied.

“Good,” my doctor said.

I thought to myself, “How many people that I know could I tell I’m peaceful?  How many situations that I find myself in would the subject of peacefulness be an appropriate conversation topic?”  And, “How many people would think I’m weird to tell them I feel peaceful?  Or not understand?”  Certainly, not at the Blues Club I frequent.  Or in my casual social occasions at the coffee shop or diner.

But my point is not how out-of-place talk of peace is.  My point is how often our conversation is constrained by our environment.  How often who we are is determined by whom we are talking to.

There are people with whom sports seems to be all I can talk about.  And I’m not that into sports.  There are people I talk about work issues with.  There are people with whom I act as a professional counselor.  There are some I seem to be talking about politics with.  Some are academic colleagues and we talk about philosophy.  Not too many people I can talk about poetry with.  There are some situations in which we complain and gripe.  There are a few people with whom I can bare my soul.  Who am I in each of these different scenarios?

There are degrees of authentic presence with other people.  There are situations in which we are polite and mannerly, which is essentially following a rule book.  There are situations in which we are diplomatic which requires sensitivity, fast and careful thinking and word choice.  There are times when we say what we think other people want to hear.  Then there are the feelings with which we encounter others.  Sometimes we speak in mutual love.  Sometimes we speak in mutual anger.  Sometimes we speak in mutual sincerity.  Sometimes in company with others we feel lonely because there is much of who we are that we cannot express in the environments we find ourselves in.  Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of situations in which one cannot talk because the listening audience is to heterodox to the one talking.    Who are we in these differing ways of dialogue?

I think that there are different degrees of depth in our personality makeup.  When we are alone, some of us are in touch with a depth that we can’t express in public, for various reasons.  We think, do, and feel as we wish when we are alone.  This may be who we really are.  There is also meditation and prayer, which takes us to an altered, deep level of personality above ordinary experience.

So who we are alone is one measure of the self.  Then, on the other hand, there are times when a person gets lost in sociality.  These are times when our environment dictates who we are, how we act.  When I was a Harvard student in Boston, I felt so connected to my social environment that there was no real divide between me and the culture of Harvard.  On the positive side, I was learning social graces and expanding my intellect.  On a negative side, I was all surface, appearance, propriety.  I lost my feeling of peace when alone in Nature.

But we can’t love when we are alone.  Love isn’t a feeling we shine out from our heart.  Love is an action word.  We love when we are involved with others.  We can love, also, when we do something of service to others, even when we are alone.  When I write, or play music, which will eventually get to other people, I love what I am doing.  My love for others comes out in words or melodies.  Sometimes peacefulness comes out.  When I am in company with others, I aim to bring love and the Good to our encounter, my love for humanity, and what I have learned to date that is good.  I may listen empathetically; I may joke around; I may share my personal life, I may inquire about others’ loves, lives, interests.  In all this I strive to be authentic.  I want people to meet who I am, not who I want people to think I am.

Once, a long time ago, I was talking to a stranger in a bar.  She said, “I’ve never met a real person before.”  I hope that wasn’t the whole truth.  But I think that we encounter degrees of reality in the people we meet.  I knew a man who accidentally told me that he is skilled in becoming the kind of person he thinks his social companion wants him to be.  That would be the opposite extreme of who I was back in the bar.  Being an authentic self is knowing self, and bringing self to social interactions.  And self in relationship with others is self expanded, growing through the interaction, acting on and in love and the good.  Being authentic in relationships expands who we are as we come away with an encounter of the other, another reality than our own.  While we may be one kind of real self when we are alone, we are also a real self when we are authentic in our relationships.

 

 

Self and Other

T. S. Eliot writes about the power we can give to others.  We can let others tell us who we are.  Eliot’s poetry goes:

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

How do we begin to declare who we are when others decide who we are, treat us according to their understanding of us, and pin us to a wall?  When I was in high school, there were jocks, bikers, and hippies.  I identified with the hippies and looked like one, but my best friend was an all-state wrestler.  We can see ourselves according to the category we fall into.  In high school, pressures are extreme when it comes to emotional survival and identity.  And the answer to self and other can become identification with a peer group.  Then where is the self?

Things continue in this vein when we enter adulthood, though with less extreme pressure.  People can become identified with their role in life.  How others see us can depend on the money we make, the job we do and how important that job is, the things we possess, our social graces, our families.  I remember when I had graduated with a master’s degree and did’t know what my next step in life would be.  I was applying to Ph.D. programs, but didn’t know if I would be accepted.  This period of uncertainty occupied about 6-months.  I didn’t have an identity.  When people asked me what I do for a living, I didn’t have an answer, and people didn’t know what to do with me.  I know of people whose life centres around their family.  Their primary relations are with their spouse and children.  Some of them do not know how to relate to the world outside their families.

The question is one of self and other.  How do we relate to others?  When a person expends much effort creating a public persona–buying the right things, talking in the “in” language–and this includes the social graces, functioning in a profession that grants prestige and dignity, one can actually become very lonely.  One’s soul no longer communicates with others in an honest way.  In religion, this would be called “worldliness.”  There are other issues.  Some indulge in substances.  Consider drinking.  A whole culture surrounds drinking.  There are drinking games.  There are drinking parties–knowing how to party can be important.  There is a whole bar culture that any alcohol commercial sells.  Then there is a luxury car that says exceptional people make the rules–they don’t follow them.  But buying that car is what makes a person exceptional, along with following the surfing culture which is a “cool” thing to do.  These examples show how identity is falsely created by dependance on things external to the self.  Self can be very lonely when one depends on extrinsic things for identity.

Self confidence gives one the freedom to be authentic.  And this means being authentic with everyone–spouse, friends, co-workers.  An old rock group sings, “You know who you are, you don’t give a damn.”  I asked a native elder about moving away from home and loneliness.  His response was similar.  “If you are firmly grounded in who you are, there is no loneliness.”  Being who one truly is, and encountering other in that capacity is the only solution that gives true relationship and community.