Who Are YOU?

Header Image by John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

When Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, one of the many peculiar creatures she meets is the caterpillar. After initially ignoring her, the caterpillar asks Alice a rude question: “Who are YOU?” Who indeed! Alice struggles to answer. She has already experienced so many bewildering changes she no longer knows what to say.

Who are you? To some degree, it is a trick question. The question implies that there is a definite answer, and that simply isn’t true. We all have multiple identities. They change and evolve as time passes. Many of us claim identities that don’t quite fit the facts. Some of that is innocent, in a way, since we often deceive ourselves about this issue.

For much of my life I had an identity that seemed credible to others and was comforting to me. Then one day, like Alice, I experienced so many changes that I totally lost my ability to answer the caterpillar’s question. I have spent almost two decades developing a new answer to the question. By now I have constructed a new identity, using pieces left over from the wreckage of former identity but mostly based on fresh insights.

There are conventions to help us answer people who ask us who we are. A century ago it was common to identify by referring to church affiliation or participation in service clubs. One of my grandmothers identified as a Methodist. The other was a proud member of the Loyal Order of Moose.

In earlier times people were identified by where they lived. Biblical scholars claim we know much about Jesus if we remember he was a Nazarene. I have recently learned that I am (and always will be) a Minnesotan.

Most people, when asked who they are, start by referring to their occupation. I am intrigued by the ways this varies. For some people, it is impossible to separate their identity from their work. For others, how they make money has nothing to do with their true character. Increasingly, people define their identity by their recreational interests.

Many people—but I think especially women—define themselves in the context of their immediate family. Ask who they are and they answer with information about their husband and/or children. And yet for some people, the roles of wife and mother are irrelevant to any useful understanding of their unique identity.

I smile to remember how my father characterized himself the night he met the woman who became his wife (and, a bit later, my mother). He said he was an artist who rode in cavalry charges on weekends. Both facts were true. What he did not say was that he became a cavalryman as a way of proving he was not gay. To be fair, he was probably not
sufficiently self-aware to know that about himself at the time.

Modern understanding of personality has been impacted by therapy so profoundly that many people use concepts from counseling when expressing their identity. Who are you? One answer that might be useful is provided by Meyers-Briggs. In that context, I am an ENFP on a good day but an INFP on a more typical day.

It is relatively easy to describe identities if we are allowed to use an unlimited number of words. What is far more challenging is compressing the description until we are left with a handful of essential truths that reflect the essence of a person.

As an example, let me introduce my friend, the 92-year-old woman I write each morning. Who is she? She is a reader, a donor and a traveler. There is far more to know about her, of course: mother, widow, former university administrator, avid student of history, and so forth. But I suggest “reader, donor and traveler” define her unique and essential character. Anything I might add to a definition of her personality would have to come after those first three characteristics.

Reader. She reads voraciously, especially history and social commentary. The word “reader” also reflects a commitment to lifelong learning. Her greatest fear is that she might lose her sight. Books have been her main source of solace in the years since her husband passed away.

Donor. My friend addressed a midlife crisis by simplifying her life radically. She and her husband sold their South Minneapolis home and built a primitive house in a valley in southeast Minnesota. Their new home had no bathroom, running water or furnace. It was such a cheap place to live that my friend and her husband could donate to causes close to their hearts, two people of modest means expressing generosity on a scale normally associated with wealthy people.

Spiritual voyageur. My friend was raised as a judgmental sort of fundamentalist Christian. With the passing of years she became more tolerant and progressive. An abhorrence for sin morphed into a compassion and a deep concern for social justice. My friend often refers to her “voyage” as a person of faith. To her, it is the single most consequential fact of her life.

The caterpillar became a butterfly, although she is too modest to claim that.

Who are YOU?

75 thoughts on “Who Are YOU?”

  1. Sometimes I wonder if I am living in an imaginary world. Perhaps I really don’t exist at all. I didn’t fall down the rabbit hole. I am one of the residents of wonderland. Life is too strange and terrifying to be real. I have been drifting through life trying to make sense out of it and it has been, as in a Gratful Dead song, a very strange journey.

    My feeling that I might be living in an imaginary world always only lasts for a few seconds after which I return to struggling to make sense out of a world that is in bad shape. I am a person who identifies with other people who are trying to create a better world. My efforts to help the people trying to create a better world have not always gone well. Never-the-less, I am continuing to try to find some way to help change things for the better.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I am just me…

    I was a good daughter…a good mother….
    I’ve been a good teacher….writer….artist…
    If you came to visit I think you would know me by my cabin = my Scandinavian style…how I choose to live simply…with my complicated busy mind…

    I hope to write more, draw & paint more that will be good…

    I’m just me…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I wonder how much being a good daughter helps a person become a good mother. I’d guess it is a huge advantage. And I’d guess that being a good daughter and mother would help anyone become a good teacher. Something that all three roles have in common is affectionate, respectful sharing. Sounds like you do that well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m more than a bit vague with my chosen adjective good…
        I HAD to be good…great…at all I’ve done.

        I’m bi polar, ADHD, and dyslexic ‘tho I only learned of this in my 50’s. I HAD to do well to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid. I knew I was different, I believed I was quite smart but I never saw things as others did so for me self challenge has always been there to prove myself…

        Being a good daughter came easily as I had great parents. I wanted to be a good mother and wife. I love children and teaching….easy to be good then. As for my writing and artwork…I’ve always been driven…Art was my major. I would not show any writing or art until I felt it was good…I am extremely critical.

        Good sounds rather generic but it is a good word.

        Liked by 7 people

        1. I think it’s difficult to have certain conditions without seeing them as something you have as opposed to who you are. Even in 12-Step groups, the meetings begin with; “I am Joe and I’m an alcoholic”. No, Joe, you’re a human being who has alcoholism. Separating that out seems to me to be a critical difference.

          I’m a person who has anxiety, and for certain periods of my life have struggled with depression. For a while, I viewed myself as a “depressive” until that identity itself deepened my depression. I agree with Steve that, when asked, people tend to state their answers in terms of the roles they play. Some roles are lifelong because they’re family positions. Others, like professions, drop off at some point later in life.

          “Who am I?” is a painful one for me because much of who I’ve been in terms of roles have largely played themselves out, leaving me with a sense of having lost a major chunk of my identity.

          Such a thought-provoking question to tackle on a chilly, rainy morning.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Gee, Steve, you make my brain hurt this early in the morning with such deep thoughts on identity.

    I, as are all people, am many different “things.” My least favorite way of describing myself is through work, mainly because people ask that early on during a first meeting so as to be able to pigeonhole the person and more easily understand who they are and how they might act in given situations.

    If I tried to narrow down “Who am I?” to the most important factors, I’d probably say I’m a gentle soul who never seeks to inflict physical, mental, or emotional harm on anyone; someone who looks for the humor and absurdity often found in mundane daily life; and a man with above average intelligence who thinks far too much for his own good and, as a result of that excessive thinking, has resolved that whatever the meaning of life and humanity’s purpose on Earth is, will attempt to make his little corner of the world a better place in any way possible.

    Chris in Owatonna

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I have no idea who I am.
    Mine is a somewhat fragmented life with lots of parts that only intersect at me, which makes for a fair amount of plate-spinning and not much cohesive thought.

    We are on the last leg of Testageddon, but no tests or homework due today, so the s&h is completely race-happy for the big meet this afternoon.

    Naturally it is drizzling. It would be good for the garden, if I had one in.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Today is the last day of Testageddon at our house too – YA was a little “testy” as her Chem final started at 8 a.m., earlier than the class itself. Exercise Science/Nutrition final is this afternoon. She’ll have two weeks off and then she’s taking a full load over the summer!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. who i am is a tric question for sure. i am so many things that i get distracted with the one i am being at the moment and forget ot look afte rthe ones that require attention on an ongoing basis.
    life used to be for iving and todya i think it is for managing more than for iving. the tricks you pick up along the way to manage the existance to lallow the being is the 64,000 question.

    happy birthday ben

    ben has doen a great job of finding a way to manage his life so he can do something he loves in order to look after who he is. an artisan and a good manager. i used to be confident that my skills were enough to let me slip slide throuhg the waters of life and come out o the winnig end. the last few yers have proven otherwise. i working on crafting my presentation to allow me to do what i love while i do what i love. so many things are important to me that i need to perform a mastery of slight of hand in order to continue enjoying the things i have come to love.

    i can wake up and be completely occupied every waking minute of the day with the questions and ideas that i run into along the way.

    blogs like today help. thanks steve. thanks baboons. away we go……

    Liked by 4 people

  6. What a thoughtful post, Steve – great opportunity to think about this in the midst of morphing from a city girl to a small town girl. Here are some things I am that I hope won’t change with the move.

    I am a dancer, a teacher, an organizer, a lover of many people.
    I have gratitude, curiosity, and intelligence.
    I try to be funny, generous, and thinner.
    I seek clarity, patience, purpose, and closeness to people.
    I hope for openness to all the new possibilities upon moving to Winona.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I neglected to mention one possible definition of self: survivor. Some of us are what we are because we have survived a terrible blow. Being a survivor makes some people smaller. And it makes some people bigger and better than they were.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I’d like to return to the notion that some people, especially women, only see themselves in the context of husbands and children. I don’t mean that as a criticism of them. If the people you live with only see you as a functionary in the context of family, that will be how you see yourself.

    When I was doing the online dating thing, three of the women I tried to get to know were unable to produce a photo of themselves (which is what you do early in the process of getting to know someone). Those three women had to cut a photo of themselves out from a photo of the family. I found that so sad. “Here is a smart and distinctive woman, but for maybe thirty years nobody found her interesting enough to take her picture. No wonder she chose to try online dating, looking for a guy who would care about her as someone with her own identity.”

    Liked by 3 people

      1. In an ideal world, people wouldn’t worry so much about their looks. You’re right that this is a big problem for women. We seem to be making progress of a highly dubious sort. If I understand things correctly, guys are more and more worried about how they look. Sheesh!


  8. I believe you will have that openness…change is inevitable (says someone who has moved 11xs-since married).

    Using my favorite word today…change can be…good!
    Best wishes with the move.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ‘I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen. I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number. I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me. I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.’

    Liked by 6 people

    1. In Tolle’s book, which was ground-breaking for me, he writes that everyone has an ego, and that ego is the false self, not the authentic self. He says the ego is self-seeking and not who we truly are. Trump comes to mind. I’ve never in my entire life been exposed to a more bloated ego, yet behind that the real person is tragically insecure. His extreme ego exists in direct proportion to his extreme insecurity, I can only imagine living inside that reality for life.

      Once I read his book, I began to see egos everywhere I went. It drove me crazy for a while to recognize how very few authentic selves existed. My perception is that those who are most humble and unassuming have the least ego, but I could be wrong.

      Shortly after reading “The New Earth”, I went to a YMCA “Get in Your Groove” class. I got there a little early and my ego made me inform the instructor that I was the “Dancing Grandma” in the western suburbs. The class began and I literally couldn’t keep up with the choreographed moves. The women moved forward; I moved backward. They went to one side; I to the other. I was so embarrassed that I sneaked out at the first opportunity. On the way home, the lesson of being ego-driven couldn’t have been more clear. My at-home ego is vastly different than my dancing ego.

      This leaves me with the notion that I’m not anyone other than breath, heartbeat, physical energy, and soul. Usually honest, often self-deprecating, and always always empathic.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I’m not sure either, but I reread it about once a year, and it always feels like a cleansing and grounding thing. I guess, as an atheist, I experience it as my version of a bible.


  10. Today I am a traveler. Husband and I fly out for Paris tonight, ending up in the rail station in Bremen by 5pm tomorrow and being greeted by relatives and taken to dinner at the Ratskeller. I think I can stay in touch, as we arranged to have our phones working in Europe.

    Liked by 8 people

    1. This inspired me to wonder what ever happened to Boy George. It turns out that he is still performing, fashion designing, writing and dealing with a fair amount of drug and legal issues.
      It seems he would have a lot to say about Who He Is.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My work as a computer programmer was always the first way I used to frame myself.
    Now, I would say singer, dancer, volunteer, mom and grandma.
    Like others here, I would say that being and doing good are essential goals. Sometimes I think it makes for a boring person but I can’t help myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I’m nobody; who are you?

    That’s my way of saying I don’t know who I am. Someday I would like to be able to describe myself half as well as you described your friend, Steve, but today I just have one thing:

    Photographer.: I seek to photograph natural beauty where I find it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886

      I’m Nobody! Who are you?
      Are you – Nobody – too?
      Then there’s a pair of us!
      Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

      How dreary – to be – Somebody!
      How public – like a Frog –
      To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
      To an admiring Bog!

      Liked by 5 people

  13. He also says I’m the 7th son, I ‘m a believer, I am a rock, I am an island, I ‘ m the man who shot Liberty Valence, I the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, I am Legion, I ‘mean a king bee

    ( husband gets silly on vacation).

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I used to drive myself nuts trying to figure out who I am; I was in a constant mode of trying to improve myself. No more; I’ve given up, and am content to just let me be. I’ve reached the conclusion that I’m an ever evolving rather complex person. I have enough conflicting impulses, thoughts and feelings that it seems impossible to integrate them all into one harmonious being. Socrates is supposed to have said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I’m here to tell you, you can overdo it.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. “Who am I?” is a question I re-framed after attending my father’s memorial service – not because now I was fatherless in this world, but because it was so striking to see a large Lutheran church filled to the choir loft and a bit more with friends and family there to honor a man who lived a quiet life selling hymnals and choral music. Thinking about all those people singing the Hallelujah chorus (many be heart, I have no doubt) because the organist decreed that it would be sung for my father still brings tears to my eyes. He lived most of his life in the same roughly 5 mile radius of south Minneapolis (except for some time in the army during WWII and a bit of time in Northwood, IA) – and from his little corner of Minneapolis, his quiet life of being a good friend, sending cards on any occasion that he felt deserved a card (always birthdays, always St Patrick’s Day), sending the odd letter to his congressperson, singing in the choir, volunteering at the “old folks home” playing the piano well into his 80s, raising two kids. He was not famous, but he put a lot of happiness, and a lot of music, into the world. He also taught me that what you do to make money does not define who you are – it just keeps the roof over your head.

    So who am I? I am someone hoping to bring some happiness into the world, someone hoping to introduce a few more children (and adults) to some wonder, some music, some curiosity. I am a fighter for equity, not simply equality. Yes, I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a niece, a wife – but that is not, at my core, how I would define me. It certainly informs how I navigate my world, but defining myself as “a mother” is limiting to both me and my daughter. Who I am informs the choices I make – the choice to be a wife and mother, the choice to volunteer, the choice to rattle a few cages at my day job in Corporate America. I am, as someone has simply said, me.

    Liked by 3 people

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