Who are you?

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Yesterday was my birthday. A few weeks (months?) ago I started pulling this joke that for every year now, I would turn younger, not older, making me now 29. To be honest, I really don’t care about my which number my age possess, my desire to turn younger is not mathematical but conceptual. Despite the onset of wrinkles, somehow it just does not ‘fit’ with how I feel and how my life looks to be past 30.

Let me explain. A few weeks ago I had a wonderful visit of n who now recently joined a larger part of my friend circle who not only are in long-term committed relationships/marriages and working devotedly and successfully on their careers, but now also owns real estate. I myself, in comparison, am again without even the faintest possible denial of a single status, currently officially unemployed and I don’t even own a sofa. Now at 31, I’m battling the consideration as whether or not that is not at least a little bit depressing… true, that I will (pepper pepper) soon finish a phd which at least should give me some ‘career’ points. So I’m not complaining, I think my life is very rich of interesting events and people, I’m simply comparing. Being the same age as people who objectively speaking appear so much more adult, I can’t help thinking that a few years less on my identification card would probably suit me better.

This leads me to a thought that I have become increasingly intimate with during the last few months, emphasized even more after left as void needs substance: (the potential illusion of) identity. What does our personality mean? What does it mean to be someone particular? And who are we really?

Last week on a beautiful Sunday hike with Amelia Earhart I brought up the topic of identity in the framing of how sometimes, if not always, we are a different person with different people. Likewise, our mood, fatigue and environment greatly effect how we react and behave. Are we then deterministic creatures enslaved by our unconscious interpretations from our perceptions? Does that mean we don’t actually have a personality? As we are so flexible to alter ourselves to context. Turning our identity into the reflection of what we suppose others request of us.

If neither of these persons, these expressions that are portrayed can be called the genuine self, what is left when they all are carved away?

Literary genius Kahlil Gibran wrote The Madman (which, if you have not already read, you should) in which a man’s seven masks are stolen. After his immediate despair and humiliation he finds peace in exposing himself for who he really is. I’ve read it several times and I remain confused. Not because the message is not clear, nor that it it’s not beautifully simple, but because I’m not sure what would be left if we are robbed of all our temporary selves. It’s it the soul, that spark of divinity that does not contain any us but only life?

A few days ago I had a unsettling thought enter my mind without any warning. As I was walking up to my bathroom mirror I was gripped with an unpleasant sensation that closest resembles: that what if one day as I look in the mirror, an unrecognisable face will have taken its place. Its eyes blinking as I order it, its mouth gasp in shock as expected, but a stranger, nonetheless. It is an utterly frightening thought, one that has few counterparts. Does that mean that my identity is tightly connected to my looks or how I perceive myself? Somehow this does not feel right. We change our looks all the time. Lose weight, put on make-up, age, basically go through unrecognisable changes. Even our self-identity is often a skewed and poor representation of the truth.

Maybe identity is much more of an illusion than we are comfortable to admit to… Perhaps personality and identity is a fluid concept ready to be changed at any moment. One of my favourite Hollywood scenes is in As Good As It Gets when Jack Nicholson after a series of awkward insults tells Helen Hunt that she makes him want to be a better person. While I think that our culture is obsessed with self-improvement in all the wrong ways, I perceive this to be one of the strongest compliments in the Hollywoodean history. If our identity is as closely connected to how we respond to others as it appears, then maybe the best response is to surround yourself with people who not only make you want to be a better person, but who in their company also makes you feel like the person that you want to be. #relationshipGoals

5 thoughts on “Who are you?”

  1. Hi Maria!
    I´think I´ll try my English just for the fun of it 😉

    Sorry I missed your birthday, hope you had a good day .And if not, there are more days 🙂
    It´s been a while since I last read your posts and the melancholy puzzles me slightly.
    You are the most fearless and independent person I know and I envy your globetrotter lifestyle which I would never dare to try. To go all in and dare to do things you find interesting regardless of what society tells you is a great thing, and Im trying to do so myself more these days. Maybe its the old age…;)

    In life, we have to try to stay true to ourself, and if that means that you need to leave a relationship, try a different career or whatever-do it! Easy to say but difficult to do, but I think its worth it. Since my child arrived, I have to consider how my actions will impact his life of course and that has perhaps made me more cautious. That´s why I am extra happy I took my big leap before starting a family. And having a safety net is important, at least for me. I would not have dared to take the leap if I did not have P, but I think that as long as we have family or friends that are there for us (which includes me if you would ever need it) it is our obligation to do what we need to feel good about ourselves and a sense of accomplishment in life. In a way, I feel more obligated to do what feels right in my life and stand up for me since A arrived, in order to be a good role model and show him not only in words but in actions that he should feel free to do what he wants in life as he grows up.

    About the whole relationships thing, a romantic relationship is nice but not essential in life while friendships are. The most important friend will always be yourself, something I think is a lifelong struggle for many, including myself. I also want to say that my romantic relationship would be pointless if the person in question wasnt also my best friend.

    Isn’t it also o so typical how people take the right to comment on your relationships, being a strong independent woman. I bet that if you had been a man (the same old example always comes back) I am sure people would be more “do your thing, have fun, make a career…family can come later” but that biological clock is something we are so chained to somehow. A family can be so many things and work (or not work) in so many ways, so that old idea of a “standard” family with biological children, or children at all seems so wrong. I would be happy to regard myself as part of your family if you want it, even though we are many miles apart! So screw the idea of how a romantic relationship or old-fashioned family will fix everything for anyone, it doesnt unless that is what you really want and need and you do it while remaining true to yourself.

    I think there is a “self” or “me” that will not be lost and I think that our interactions with our environment and people around us involves sharing different parts of our being but that the whole pictures is only for ourselves to experience and that is who we truly are. The “self” changes over time as we experience things in life but the core will always be there- with our emotions,ideas,values and thoughts on whats important in life. A lot of which we probably carried with us since we were very young. The sense of self-worth, humor,basic interests, how we interact with and have love for others are all things I see blooming in my son, and which I think he had in him from the very beginning and that he has shaped in his own mind. How much of his personality that is hardcore-written in his DNA and how much of it me and P is responsible for inducing with our best intentions or even planting in him I dont know, but I am certain that we all have something that is the core of our “self” from the start, for us to continue shaping and carry with us always.

    This became a lot longer than I first intended, but as I dont write you as often as I should, this might make up for that a little.
    Take care!
    Många kramar

    1. <3 Thank you Elin! I'm so happy to hear from you! You make some really good points, we have to stay true to ourselves, but as you point out, it is not always clear what that means. Love and friendship, or even children, are not what defines us which I think is important to be aware of.
      Sometimes I just wonder what is left is all the "external" aspects are stripped away. I mean, I know who you are, and you know who I am, but what does that really mean? If I were to start remove the attributes/skills and shared memories then what is left? It is a difficult question without a clear answer... :)
      I will write a proper email reply as well. Just to check in on P and A and the house renovation!

  2. Great new year video. It also brought me here.

    You might be selling short the resilience of personality. It reminds me of a discussion we had with a friend on Plato. He remarked that in the Republic, one of Socrates’ analogies for a political system (a city) is one of a human being with different parts of the mind representing political bodies. But, remarkably, he leaves out the body entirely. Weird that, isn’t it? Reading further it become apparent that it was meant to be an abstraction intended to teach a lesson about the misery of one particular dogma because a description of a human without a body doesn’t make sense. It wasn’t meant as a serious description of either a human or a city.

    Similarly, we are tied to our bodies in an inextricable manner. Even if you change the way your mind works, or even worse, it’s changed by a radical change in the context, it remains recognizably your own. Assume you grow senile. If you’ve seen the effect, you know the person changes in radical ways, losing much of the capabilities, memories and more. Yet, what remains is still uniquely identifiable because it’s the result of a transformation happening to a unique individual with memories and features. As the changes happen to a physical body, the transformation cannot be on a blank state but a well used canvas. I cannot imagine a change besides the cessation of brain function that would render the personality unrecognizable. Of course, that individual with have different relations to its context. E.g., people that liked them before might dislike them and vice versa. But it’s still the same individual because of the unique path they took to get to where they are.

    1. First: Thanks!

      Second: I must admit that reading your thoughts I find myself a bit puzzled, and it took me a while to figure out how to answer and most likely I am not doing it justice.
      As I have not read the Republic, I don’t entirely follow your reference to Plato’s “intended point” on the misery of dogmas on the body-mind problem, but in the isolated case of a city and politics representing the body and mind, I see no strong objections. Following your second paragraph it sounds like your point is that neither body nor mind represent a “person” in isolation. However, you end your comments by stating that it is the unique path that we take that makes us who we are. While I much agree that we are the “sum of our experiences”, I am not sure how this actually relates to either body or mind… But I guess that is a rather hardcore existential question, without many clear answers. I suppose that what you mean by context is the isolated short periods of time when we choose to “walk with someone” so to speak and from that we build a personal expectation/perceived character of that person and “who” we are in their presence as well, and if we get alzheimer’s and forget that path, our personality is lost because our mind no longer remembers the path we walked nor who we are within particular contexts. To concretise what I wonder: I experience you in one way, others – including yourself – describe you very differently naturally with some overlap (I’m sure you have the same experience with me). Is this then a misinterpretation from my part in which the way you act with me, has very little do do with “you”, and mostly to do with the “you” that your personality takes in the context of “me”. If so, can we really claim to be more than the sum of how others perceive us?

      Third: On the topic of personality I feel the need to point this out: Naturally you are represented in the returning character list. But Chip n’ Dale are two other of our friends. Have you forgotten who you are? 😉

  3. Third: Yes and no. Re-read the text of the post. There’s justification for my self-identification.

    Second: I think you jump from accepting that our personality leans on our mental and physical past to a definition of context that doesn’t include that. I accept that our behaviour emerges within a context, such that one’s interaction with an individual being is tailored to a person. I.e., I can seem different with you than with another. But that’s a trivial difference in the sense that I am still one person that has different interactions with each unique individual. Yet, I ought to be the same person because both my body and my mind has taken a unique path to making those interactions with each individual. And hopefully each interaction is also unique. In that sense, each individual that perceives us does in fact see a facet of us, but it loses the derogatory meaning in which our personality is a sum of people’s perceptions rather than a unique being.

    On another point, being trapped in a body should make void the thought experiment where we suffer from Alzheimer’s and forget the path we took. Our mind might get confused, but our body took that journey and there will be unique traces of the path lingering on both our body and mind.

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