“A person who doesn’t know what the universe is, doesn’t know where they are. A person who doesn’t know their purpose in life doesn’t know who they are or what the universe is. A person who doesn’t know any one of these things doesn’t know why they are here. So what to make of people who seek or avoid the praise of those who have no knowledge of where or who they are?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.52
“Who are you?”
To unwrap this question is to consider a rabbit’s hole worth of additional questions. How do I come to understand who I am? What am I to make of the things that have influenced who I am? Am I being honest about who I am when performing self-evaluation? Should I invoke the opinions of others in order to truly understand who I am?
Or is it best to approach this from a “casual party” perspective? I am a 48-year-old man. I work at Bank of America in the technology field. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a son. I am a student. I am impatient. I am thoughtful. I am thin. I am a hiker. But are these things really who I am? Couldn’t it be equally true that some of these are more what I do? For example, to be a hiker does it simply require one to hike, or does the gear one uses make one a hiker?
It would, in my opinion, be foolish to think we could ever completely answer who we are. Allowing for who we are to take the name “self”, we would first have to show that there is something about this self that is fixed, much less define what a self is. An important point is to consider the question as an opportunity to evaluate not only who you are at the moment, but also who you want to be. For the sake of the latter, am I listening to the words of those who matter? Am I pursuing that which is helping me to become the self that I desire? Years ago my philosophy professor Ellen Klein asked me a question: Is there anything I would die for? For some people this is easy. They would die for their god. They would die for a family member. They would die for their belief. Socrates, for example, allowed himself to be executed because he wanted to ensure he died in a manner consistent with what he believed, and how he taught others. I remember answering “I don’t know” to this question.
A couple of semesters ago two UNF students with a religious club approached me and asked what I though the most important thing in life was. I briefly paused and replied “family”. It would be reasonable to conclude that the most important thing in my life would be the thing I would die for. I would agree with that conclusion.
When we come to know what is important we are better informed on how to make the best of our life. When we come to know what is important we are better informed as to who we are. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote:
“And yet life is also a finite reality. It possesses an inner heart, a centre of interiorization, a me which asserts that it is always the same throughout the whole course. A life is set within a given space of time; it has a beginning and an end; it evolves in given places, always retaining the same roots and spinning itself an unchangeable past whose opening toward the future is limited. It is impossible to grasp and define a life as one can grasp and define a thing, since a life is “an unsummed whole,” as Sartre puts it, a detotalized totality, and therefore it has no being. But one can ask certain questions about it.”
It is best not to waste this finite reality on trivial pursuits. Ask the question. Answer the questions.