At a glance:
- We are shaped by our past, and our present selves make decisions about the future.
- What we display in our interactions becomes a measure of our character.
- Read real responses from the readers.
Cogito, ergo sum. Nearly four centuries since these three words surfaced and yet they remain widely recognised. Descartes’ first principle—I think, therefore I am—fundamentally shaped Western philosophy then and continues to provoke thought today. While relevant and undoubtedly poetic, how much can the intent that an entity finds its existence in the act of doubt be wrapped up in this finite statement?
What makes you, you? Surely a question we have all asked ourselves at some point in our lives. It’s challenging to pinpoint because there is no singular defining term. Just like us, the ‘self’ is a sum of parts. Thanks to great thinkers, there are numerous definitions of the self and the multifaceted process that goes into its being.
There are certain aspects of ourselves where we find clues to our identity. At base level, our physical body contributes to how we, and those around us, see us. Of course, there is the blatant issue of gender, now popularly argued to be a spectrum rather than binary. However, even other physical traits such as height, attractiveness and one most taken for granted—state of health and physical ability—contribute greatly to this equation.
At base level, our physical body contributes to how we, and those around us, see us.
Dive inwards and you will encounter the brain; the thought engine that scientists ascribe our motor functions, idea generation and vastly much more to. As much as it is the central hub of control, can a mass of grey matter hold our entire person? Perhaps the organ’s limbic system, involved in emotion, behaviour and memory, further hints at the creation of our identity.
Our memory is an unmistakable mould of our selves. We have what psychologists call the ‘minimal self’, where an entity is currently conscious of itself distinguished against the environment. While the ‘minimal self’ is predominantly present in most creatures, what the sophistication of our memory does is develop an added layer—the ‘narrative self’; a continuum of a distinct existence extending to past and future.
We are shaped by our past, and our present selves make decisions about the future. None of them are identical, the way 10-year-old you and 50-year-old you are inevitably different, yet all are the same person. Likewise, two separate individuals can live through the same incident but not have the exact experience. So what is memory if not what we interpret of it that gives substance to the mould?
We are shaped by our past, and our present selves make decisions about the future.
Alas the most unforgiving and infallible method pertains to our actions. What we display in our interactions becomes a measure of our character. Professor John M Doris observes that we do so on a scale of how dominant a particular trait is—a person is considered nasty if he or she is nasty four out of five times, negating the context where in five given times of another situation, the same person could be nice to the same extent.
Philosopher Julian Baggini suggests a dual passive and active self. The passive self contains idiosyncrasies crafted by our general upbringing and background. The active self refers to the attributes we choose to cultivate. A naturally shy person could, for a temporary period or across a gradual period of time, establish more outspoken tendencies. How would this person then define himself?
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and even neurologists continue to debate the engineering behind the unified sense of self. We’ve acknowledged the physical and intangible qualities of the self, but what ties it all together? Are truths about the world and ourselves merely beliefs we strongly adhere to?
What we display in our interactions becomes a measure of our character.
What we believe about our world, people around us, and ourselves, we achieve by sensing and deriving consequences. We deem seasons from seeing and feeling changes in the weather. We trust a friend to be dependable because he has consistently carried himself so.
Our beliefs, ‘mental constructions’ as computer scientist Nils J Nilson puts it, are but descriptions of reality.
More often than not, beliefs are malleable; subject to time or until proven false. More often than not, they are also acted upon. The sun was believed to revolve around the Earth until Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed otherwise in the early 1500s. Scientists believing in life outside Earth use technology to explore its plausibility.
Beliefs are vital not only to our actions, but our esteem and subsequently, our performance. Whether or not we excel in an area has a huge relation to how confident we are about ourselves or a guiding divinity. We are often convicted of our beliefs not only due to sound reason, but palpable experiences. Some we cannot explain; others we use to explain.
If our beliefs are nothing more than our description of reality, are the words we use to define ourselves nothing more than a description that cannot fully articulate who we really are?
What do you know to be true about yourself?
|Nothing. And that’s terrifying.||I'm not as smart as I look. I am shy, I constantly doubt myself, but still strive in adversities.
|I’m desperate for meaning.||I have good instincts which I sometimes regret not following and end up in trouble.|
|I’m scared of the unknown most of the time and trying to overcome my fears. I’m afraid of risks and yet I like to feel challenged. I’m clueless about many things but I wish to feel like I’m brave and honest. Sometimes I feel like a paradox.
|I'm a perfectionist and my own worst critic and enemy. I have many faults but I'm in the process of a slow renewal.|
|I am idealistic, but I also accept that the ideal cannot be achieved in some cases. I want things to be reasonable and hate the idea of religion, but I believe that everyone is entitled to their belief. I believe in freedom as long as it’s not harmful to others.||I'm queer. I believe that gender is a construct, that it's okay to be queer. I believe that the world will end in my lifetime and I'm trying to be okay with that.|
I can’t figure out who I am because I become the person people say I am.
|I have many identities defined by others and each identity is truly me.|
|I am awkward, both socially and internally. My present is shadowed by my past and I am not able to express what I actually want to anyone. I am lonely but am not able to be happy with it.
|I am fiercely opinionated, hypocritical, negative and always searching for fairness in an unfair world.|
|I will be released from this flesh prison eventually. Everything is a construct in the grand scheme of things, so be whatever and whoever you want to be. This life is too short to conform to silly made-up things.
|As much as I hate it, I am extremely insecure and under the facade that I have created for myself in the public eye, I’m extremely sensitive and seek a lot of validation from the outside.|
|I’m rather hot-tempered and though I think I can control my emotions; they show on my face more often than I believe. I have plenty of negative thoughts and an inferiority complex. I’m mostly on the sidelines as I can’t really converse well if I don’t know the topic.||I believe in justice, that everyone deserves to live to their highest potential, and governments have no place in telling us how to live as people. LGBTQ+ are valid, women are valid, the disabled are valid, the mentally ill and challenged are valid, but no one is more valid than others.|
|I’m honest but capable of telling white lies.|
|I am not simply afraid of being boring and ignorant. I am also afraid of the consequences of it.||I’m always growing physically, emotionally and mentally, as well as the fact that I’ll grow out of something I once liked and into something I rejected in the past.|
I may be hot-tempered but when I love, I love with all of my heart and protect all my loved ones.
|I have a good heart and will one day become somebody to help people all around the world.|
|I am loyal, very sensitive and very imaginative.||I know that God loves me for who I am and that nothing can change that.
|My moral compass.||I always try to be kind to people, regardless of his or her status, but sometimes my kindness gets exploited.|
|I have talents and gifts that should be nurtured and shared for the greater good, and doing so will bring me closer to the higher power, which is pure love.
|I’m not defined by my bad days and fully loved by God. I am who He says I am.|
|My value and identity are beyond labels and people’s opinions. My worst days don’t define me; they make me stronger||I submit myself to the endless inexorable passage of time each time I open my eyes.|
|I beat around the bush, but only because I am desperately trying to protect my vulnerability from being ruthlessly stepped on.||
I am certain that I am uncertain about who I am. I have a pyramid theory:
1. Who people think you are,
2. Who you think people think you are,
3. Who you think you are (ego), and
4. Who you really are.
And (4) is unaccessible when (3) is a limiting belief. It's a long and tough journey to figure out.
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