Who am I?
In the 1999 movie, Analyze This, Billy Chrystal plays a psychiatrist who’s treating a mafia boss.There’s a scene with a meeting of mob bosses, where Billy Chrystal unexpectedly shows up and sits in for his patient. Surprised, one of the other bosses asks him, Who are you? He answers: “Who am I? Who am I? Oh, that’s a question for the ages!”
Call it cosmic, unknowable, confusing, headache-inducing, or just plain tough to answer, who am I? is a question which has been asked, in various ways, by everyone from great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle to decidedly not-so-famous people: that jumble of “regular folk” who make their lives in the far-flung cities, towns and villages we call home. Asking the question, who am I? makes kin of us all…
Today, the question has become a cultural lightning rod, touching gender, race, politics and religion among other categories we dip into to help define ourselves and others. None of these categories, however, helps clarify your identity. Instead, they distort its true meaning and power — that to know who you are is to know why you are here, and, in turn, what to do, what not to do, and why.
You might ask yourself, am I not a Jones, a Stern, a Tanaka? – the child of a good family? Am I not a loyal Christian, a pious Jew, a devout Muslim? Am I not American? Or, Turkish? Or Indian? Am I not a successful Black female ballet dancer? At least, a hard-working plumber? Is this not enough? If not, who am I then?
You may be any combination of these things. But none of these descriptions answers the question, who am I? That is because, despite their importance in how you define yourself, these labels serve to mask, rather than reveal, who you are at your core. In short, you are not your labels; you are simply you.
Answering the question, who am I?, brings with it the promise of affirmation – nothing less than the awakening of your spirit. It is no great feat to verify that you exist in physical terms. Your five senses do that for you, automatically. It is something else entirely to experience yourself as self-aware and fully awake.
Experiencing this confirmation of your self is prelude to everything else you will learn and do in relation to your life. Once you have found this feeling, you’ll be ready to discover what makes you unique as an individual and the potential it holds for how you engage with the world.
What’s the way forward?
The way to know who you are is by first defining yourself as separate from all others. Within the context of identity, separation isn’t about being physically or emotionally remote from people – physical separation isn’t especially difficult to achieve and emotional connections are essential for strong relationships.
Separation is about putting some healthy distance between yourself and other people so you can step back and see, really see, yourself within the context of your relationships. How are you different from your best friend, your brother, mother, or your boss, in terms of your personality, your values and talents? Answering these questions is an exercise in clarifying boundaries that mark turf belonging just to you, no matter how close you are to others.
What you’re looking for in separation is independence – the ability to think and act on your own and in your own best interests, despite what others may expect of you. Defining yourself as separate from others is about finding your own integrity as an individual.
If more people knew their true identities, it’s likely that we’d all be better off. Families might show greater regard for one another as individuals. Teams would function more effectively, taking advantage of each member’s distinctive strengths. Organizations might hire more of the right people for the right reasons. Individuals, like you and me, might simply sleep more soundly at night.
Who are you? People want to know.