Burning Questions: Who am I? Part one (Opinion)
After nearly half a year writing Burning Questions, the time has come to turn the focus inward. So this week’s question is: “Who am I?” More specifically in this context, “Who is this introverted middle-aged suburban mother and wife who suddenly decided to start writing a column in the local newspaper that seems, most weeks, to swerve into the topic of climate change like a magnet drawn to an iron pipe?”
There are quick, easy answers to that question, but they’re not very interesting. Forgive me as I zoom back out for a moment to look at the question itself: Who am I?
When asking who a person is, we are often asking a coded sub-question. With adults, identifying what they do for a living is a quick shorthand for who they are. As in, “Who is that guy?” “Oh, that’s my kid’s music teacher / That’s the town mayor / That’s the guy who works the deli counter and makes a mean ham and Swiss on rye.”
I think some people would happily self-identify as their job titles. Those are the lucky folks who found a career that aligns well with their skills, values, and what they find meaningful. I’m happy for those folks.
For me, on the other hand (and I suspect for many others), job titles have not been a source of pride, or even a reliable marker of selfhood. I’ve been a teacher, an office manager, and other iterations of those jobs, none of which particularly reflected my skills, values, or what I found meaningful.
Similarly, I suspect that the guy who works at the deli counter probably doesn’t think of himself as The Guy Who Works at the Deli Counter. He may, but more likely he thinks of himself as the guy who’s holding down this current job while he attends night school to become an actuary, or while he works on his novel, or while he formulates a brilliant scheme to rob the Federal Mint. Regardless, the question of “Who is this person” seems to revolve around what one does for a living.
But that has unsettling implications: If you change jobs a lot or never find a fulfilling career, does that mean you’ve never really found yourself? Does it mean that who you are changes every time your job does? Does it mean that “self” is necessarily tied to one’s profession?
Surely selfhood is deeper than that, more intractable. Perhaps it is … But then again, selfhood itself might be an illusion.
“The nature of self,” Robert Lawrence Kuhn wrote in a 2016 article in Live Science (Is Your ‘Self’ Just an Illusion? | Live Science), “is one of philosophy’s perennial and persistent questions.”
He goes on to quote British philosopher Colin McGinn: “Our grasp of the concept of the self is very limited because we experience it from our first-person point of view when we say ‘I,’ but we really don’t know what that thing [“I”] is at all … Our imaginative adventures with the concept reflect our ignorance about what the self actually is and what it constitutes in the brain.'”
So who is a person, then? An accumulation, perhaps, of experiences, memories, and a mishmash of thoughts, emotions and sensations, all of which blend together into a sense of “self.” And for most people, that sense of self endures throughout the years, despite a lack of real understanding of what that enduring self might be, in any way that science or reasoning can reliably identify.
In my case — as you might already have guessed, if you’ve read some of my columns — the sense of “who I am” weaves tightly to the practice of writing and cogitating. I have always lived my life in my head: reading, writing, wondering, hypothesizing, adjusting the hypotheses, re-hypothesizing. I do some of my best thinking when I am running or hiking, when I’m outside, moving and breathing the fresh air and listening to the trees stirring in the wind. Which brings me to a paradox: I am, and you are, a knotty network of cells, some of which make up a “body” we can sense as solid, and some of which make up a “mind” which can think about the body (and itself)… but neither of which would exist without the other.
Who is that, then?
To be continued…
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. To learn more visit http://www.jaenabloomquist.com.
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