For centuries, philosophers have debated the definitions of various objects. Take trees, for instance. Plato believed in an ideal tree. All other trees attempted to imitate the ideal tree (thereby unifying the concept of a tree). Later era philosophers argued that the concept of a tree is a composite of all the trees we have ever encountered. Either way, it is easy to see why the idea becomes such a moot problem. How exactly do we know a tree is a tree, even though it is individualized from every other tree we have seen? Clearly, we don’t think twice about whether or not a Brachychiton, native to Australia, is actually a tree, even if we have never seen one before. Particularly when inter-species trees differ in almost every physical aspect. What are the defining characteristics that distinguish trees from say large plants (for example, banana trees aren’t actually trees), humans, or insects? Indeed, we can’t even say that trees don’t move from location to location, because there are the famous walking palms of Peru that defy this restriction, displacing themselves about a foot every five years.
While the solution (if one exists) to the question about trees may not impact our lives, the implications extend to a question that is, arguably, far more disgruntling. The question being, “Do you know who you are?” Likewise, “What makes you you?” The answer may seem obvious, like the one about trees, but it is infinitely more complex.
You can start out by saying, “I am me,” meaning “I am Pam.” This response implies that your identity is associated primarily with your name. Certainly, especially in literature, names become important symbols that associate personalities to individuals. But this brings on the question, “Would you be an entirely different person if you were given another name?” What about people who change their names? Do they become entirely different people? The same problem arises with roles. Once I cease being a student, am I a whole different Pam? Symbolic identity is not quite the same as identity.
Associating your identity with your physical being won’t do the trick either. To put it into perspective, my sister-in-law recently said that her new year’s resolution was to lose weight so that, “there would be less of her around.” While literally this statement is true, it doesn’t mean that some part of her has disappeared, that there’s less of who she really is.
Most people agree that there is a fundamental identity that remains the same as we grow-up, despite changing attitudes, opinions, and gaining in knowledge and experience. There is something “deeper” and “at the core” that distinguishes you from every other person. It is something making you truly unique. Our personalities and qualities are manifestations of who we really are, but it is not what defines us. Unfortunately, such an explanation leaves us more baffled than before, because then what is there that we can describe ourselves by, if not by personality traits, attitudes, or actions? What is there that causes all these reactions to be emitted from within? Who knows? Pam certainly doesn’t.
A dear friend of mine once, in the midst of questioning his existence, claimed that he was sorely affected by people’s opinions of him because these opinions determined who he was. It didn’t matter what he thought of himself, because if no one else believed it, it became null. His disturbing conclusion was that he didn’t really exist as an individual. Instead, he was but a composite of other people’s opinions based on his personality traits, attitudes, and actions. While I disagree with him entirely, that there has to be something else to a person that defines them, I have still been unable to find that “else.” Much like Berkeley’s “ideal” world, this argument is difficult to dispute. And it has certainly left me as baffled as ever as to discovering who I am.
God’s claim, “I am who I am” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. Do you know who you are?