Ask not “Who am I?” but “Who might I become?"
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
By Shaun Day-Woods
Ever since I became interested in philosophy, especially its popular varieties, I have encountered the encouragement to ask “Who am I?”. Pursuing this introspection apparently is something that anyone interested in being more enlightened ought to do as it embraces truths, even difficult ones, about our inner personalities. And, I suppose, knowing oneself also has many practical consequences. We become familiar with our limits, our true desires and our fears in order to better interact with, and perhaps even succeed in, the world outside ourselves.
Often however, “Who am I?” is answered by the question “What am I?”. And those responses attempt to describe what ties all humans together. Thus we find answers such as - I am a mortal being, I am a spirit temporarily inhabiting a physical body, I am an animal earthling, a collection of minerals, a multi species event, stardust...
But answering the question “Who am I, the individual?”, is a personal journey, one which might offer us insight into our unique identities. Oftentimes, those who focus on this question do so because of a perceived concern that they have been fearful of knowing who they truly are or have been dishonest about it. In these instances being able to publicly come out to oneself can be liberating. “I am gay, there I said it!”. Or even allowing less dramatic insights to come to the fore, such as “ I have been presenting a generally false image of myself to my community and wish to present a more authentic and honest version of who I am”. In one respect much of the basis of human selfhood is our individual inter-relational system of genetics, hormones, memories, experiences, brain chemistry, feelings, thoughts, relationships, and values. But these elements remain only a percentage of who we are, they are a sort of starting point.
Another part of what determines our individual selves lies in the choices we make. If I lie, I am a liar, if I refuse to conform then I am a non-conformist, etc. And our beliefs form us as well. If I believe in Christ then I am a Christian. There are also what might be called core beliefs - things like “ meat is based on harm to animals” or “cheating is wrong”. Some core beliefs are very personal - “I am stupid ” or “I am very intelligent.” If what we choose to do and what we believe, both of which are changeable, constitute a fairly large part of our identity, then we are ‘potential’ as much as we are static entities.
Our unique bodies, our genetics, chemistry and other individual characteristics mean that we don’t start life out as a blank slate. But the canvas onto which our selfhood is expressed is large and there are lots of blank areas on it. And good to keep in mind that even those unique bodies are themselves always changing, and with those changes so too do our personalities. For instance our hormonal levels fluctuate throughout our lives, altering who we are. Therefore even aspects of our most static core are not immutable.
Because we are in part created by the choices we make and the beliefs we hold, ‘being true to myself’, is a constant dance or martial art of making different choices, of revisiting our beliefs, and thus creating an authentic person, of fulfilling the potential that each of us has to reimagine ourselves, of being constantly reborn.
We change, we realign, we discover new truths, we reject old beliefs, we break old habits, we have new insights... As well, most of us are an ongoing process of exploring who we are ‘in society’, by trying various roles, wearing an assortment of social costumes, pursuing sexual experiments or adopting new religious and political outlooks to see where we fit. I’m old enough to know that mimesis, automatic collective behaviour and social contagion are real. Snorting cocaine while dancing to the Talking Heads in a Montreal dance club in the 1980s was a lot of fun, but was it free self creation?
A large part of who we are at any time is determined by outside forces: our haircuts, clothing fashion, drugs, dance moves, political opinions, spiritual outlooks, the books we read... These are often chosen largely because of attitudes and values we inherit, like our family’s religion, ethnicity and class, as well as our friends, the place where we live and the cultural forces of a time period. Oftentimes even radical sub cultures - the punk scene or the queer scene as examples, can diminish our ability to freely self-create, as most milieus are to some degree based around conformity and various other constraints on the individual.
Who am I, as I seek to create myself from among the overwhelming marketplace choices of modernity’s trends, its consumeristic approaches to everything - from both alternative cultural offerings and mainstream, dominant ones? Is it even possible to separate oneself from cultural forces? Is much of self-creation mostly just freedom of choice among predetermined options? What is an authentic self? Maybe all we can ever be are variations on a time and place’s themes, more the results of fate than self creation. If so, then at the very least the self creator seeks to become adept at constantly clearing the clutter of dominant belief systems and creating space for rebirth, even within our limited possibilities.
Raoul Vaneigem said that we should “make our own life a cause sufficient unto itself”. Perhaps we do so through self-creation, by making choices and constantly revisiting beliefs. Can we rise above historical and geographical contexts and external cultural forces to truly and freely self create?
What current systems and most alternatives to them - capitalist civilization, republicanism, Marxist Leninism, fascism, theocracies, etc - have to offer, unfortunately, are monolithic, simplistic, conformist systems that deny the individual freedom to self create. They seek to mold and form the individual into a robot, dutifully believing, shopping, producing, obeying, joining militaries, dehumanizing others, etc according to the interests of their elites and dominant ideologies.
Identities have recently become the go to answer to the question “Who am I?”. But most make sense primarily only within the time and places we happen to randomly live in. These types of identities, often false ones, can rob us of the blank space available for more authentic personalities to develop. Our deepest kernels aren’t identities. In a sense, identities only exist as a way to stunt our potential because freely self creating beings threaten dominating social systems. In other words, our focus shouldn’t be limited only to self-discovery or to naming the boxes that the dominant reality has put us in. It should include self creation as well.
Some of us by luck of history and through the ongoing maintenance of systemically unjust systems have more or less room to create ourselves than others. Not everyone has the same amount of time and leisure to pursue self discovery or self creation. Therefore we should recognize the power and possibility of self creation as not just an individual endeavour. It can be collective and it can be insurrectionary. In fact, perhaps a collective upheaval against false identities and indoctrinated belief systems, and for the emergence and embrace of creative nothingness as the center of our collective selfhood might be as good a basis for widespread radical praxis as anything else. A reborn world likely takes reborn individuals. Our revolts against the stifling and unjust global social order shouldn’t be focused on the reorganization of work or for more ethical captains and managers at the helm. It should be toward clearing space for joyful lives and self-creation.
I look toward a world of individual and social experimentation, a world that rejects monolithic destinations, especially global ones. Movements toward social relationships that value dissenters and heretics, which reject mass indoctrination by Parties or elites, which embrace potential - both individual and collective - are most welcome. Let’s look toward more impermanent identities, a constant emptying of our selfhood vessel, the development of rituals - including social upheavals- that encourage rebirth...an embrace of nothingness not only for its inherent value, but for its potentiality.
Humans are neither a solid kernel nor mere emptiness. We are both. Our kernel is a solid shell filled with potential. One which allows us to be ever changing, ever reborn.