Almost everyone struggles to answer this question at some point in their life, and it is a difficult one, but I can make it easier. To understand how to answer this question and define ourselves, let’s explore how we define others. Let’s try to define Bob in the following scenario:
Action: Bob spills milk onto Alice.
Bob’s point of view
Intention: ? I won’t reveal for now
Motivation: ? I won’t reveal for now
Alice’s point of view
Perception: From her angle, Bob moved his hand to the cup, then tipped it over onto her.
Interpretation: Intentional. Malicious Intent, Malicious Motivation.
Impression: Bob wanted to ruin her day and is a bad person
Tom’s point of view
Perception: From his angle, Bob’s sleeve looked like it got caught on the table, and as he was pulling free he hit the cup and spilled the milk.
Interpretation: Accident. Benign Intent, Benign Motivation.
Impression: Tom thinks Bob is a clumsy person for not planning ahead (alternate: Tom forgives Bob’s legitimate mistake and makes no note of it)
1. Bob says “sorry it was an accident” and Tom will confirm this.
2. Bob doesn’t want to be seen as clumsy, and has a poor idea of what is badass, so he’ll say “word” and end up looking like a jerk.
Reception of Bob’s explanation (#1)
Alice: Correct’s her view of Bob from bad person to clumsy, or chooses not to believe it and maintains her original view.
Tom: confirms his conclusion that Bob is clumsy.
Reception of Bob’s explanation (#2)
Alice: Confirms her view that Bob is a bad person.
Tom: Is amazed at how badass Bob is.
We as humans understand our world by giving things identities. In the example above, we saw how Bob is assigned an identity by everyone he meets, because identity is a subjective human concept used to rationalize and understand the world. These subjective identities are formed independently: Alice defines Bob as a bad person, Tom defines Bob as a badass person. Who is Bob depends on who you ask.
But what if you ask some 3rd party capable of universal, objective truth: Who is Bob? Is Bob a bad person, or a clumsy person? That 3rd party, let’s call Truth, would take a look at the life of Bob:
- When he was 8, Bob was messing around with Alice his sister while Tom his Father looked on.
- When he was 18, Bob was not good at flirting with his crush Alice while his wingman Tom looked on.
- When he was 28, Bob was at his first formal business meeting with Alice and Tom and hadn’t gotten used to wearing suits and dress shirt sleeves.
OK, so Bob’s true identity to Truth seems to change with time: when Bob was 8, he was just a kid who was inconsiderate of others; when Bob was 18, he was considerate but unskilled; when Bob was 28, he was clumsy because he had new clothes on. There is no timeless answer. We could try to find a timeless answer, and for instance decide that Bob is the identity he spends the most time in: if he spends 25 years as a bad person and then 3 years as a clumsy person, he must be a bad person. However, this definition breaks down because what if for the next 25 years he remains clumsy and ends up having 28 years as clumsy during his life: you judged too soon! Or, what if for the next 20 years he remains clumsy, making it 23 years as clumsy total, and then dies: you would call him a bad person overall, but anyone who met Bob in the last 23 years of his life would say he’s not a bad person, he’s just clumsy. A timeless answer looses information about Bob: it is more accurate to say that he spent 25 years as a bad person, and then 23 years as a clumsy person, than to just say that Bob is a bad person, and that’s his only identity.
To summarize, Bob’s identity varies based on 1. who’s talking and 2. the time in question. Bob’s identity is also due to 3. the context of the situation. The context of the situation is why we are more willing to understand and forgive Bob’s clumsiness at age 28 if we know he’s not used to wearing sleeves, than if we didn’t know that. Specifically, we assign the clumsiness identity to Bob if we don’t have any other reasonable detail to assign it to, while we assign the clumsiness identity to Bob’s clothing if we do have that knowledge, detail, and understanding.
Let’s return now to the original question: Who am I? Am I who I am in the past, present, or future, or am I a combination of all three? Am I who I tell myself I am, or who someone else tells me I am? The reason the original question “Who Am I” is so hard to answer is because it is an incomplete question. We now know that the full question is:
“Who am I at [time] and [context] to [who]?”
Preview of future posts: Bob also has a view of himself. He could think of himself as a badass or a clumsy person, or he could be completely oblivious to the identities Tom and Alice consider for him, and instead Bob could consider himself a son, a student, a brother, a tennis player, etc. Bob’s view of himself has no effect on Truth’s view of Bob. In fact, Truth is just a set of judging criteria that someone, God, Bob, Tom, or you, use to attempt to bring objectivity to a subjective situation. Truth varies by person, country, background, etc.
I will dive even deeper in my next posts: What is Reality, Truth, and Existence? and Properties of Reality and What is Logic and Judgment? To find out when those posts, and other life education writing, are released, subscribe on the side! Follow on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+, on Tumblr.