A simple question, you say. Well, how do you answer it? With your name? With your family pedigree? With your job? At some point, you see that nothing you say really answers the question and you stop — at the edge of a vast open space. “This can’t be who I am?”, you say, and turn away.
Won’t you please,
please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.
— Supertramp, The Logical Song
Let’s start again. Who are you? Every time you fill out a job application, work up your resumé, fill in your information on an online dating service (one of the many new forms of hell created by the web), or meet someone socially, that ‘simple’ question has to be answered.
In the world of social conventions, the answer is a story. Lots of things may go into this story: interests, history, quirks, talents, achievements, background, likes, dislikes, successes and failures. And the story we tell changes according to the circumstances.
We don’t stop there. We reflect, refine, and even create such stories, not only to navigate in the world, but also to understand why we do certain things or to prepare for a new stage in life. The stories are always evolving. They are not fixed. They take on new dimensions, reveal connections we hadn’t seen before, or seem to explain things about our lives in a different, perhaps even useful, way.
But none of the stories, not one of them, not even all of them, answers the question “Who am I”.
I’m a million different peoplefrom one day to the next…
— The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
Perhaps we can answer this question by looking at how we behave. Many things affect our behavior, but here, we’ll consider just two, feelings and roles.When angry, we see the world in terms of opposition. Anyone, even our partner or our child, appears, at least for a moment or two, as an enemy, and we treat them as such, though we may well regret doing so afterwards. When needy, we see the world as not providing what we need, and we grasp and hold onto things, sometimes quite unnecessarily. The same holds for pride, or jealousy, or love, compassion, or devotion.
How we behave also depends on our role in any given situation. We tend to behave one way when we are giving orders, another way when we are receiving them, and yet another when we are mediating between those who give orders and those who receive them. We have one personality when we are accepted members of a group and another personality when we are outside or new to a group. We behave one way with our parents, and another way with our children and still another with our siblings. Who we are, even in the context of family, seems to change according to our role.
All we can conclude from this is that we are a million different people, every day.
The more we look into this question, the more mysterious it becomes. And that, right there, opens another possibility. Who am I? Could I be a mystery?
In spiritual work, a mystery is something that cannot be put into words, but can be known in experience. Can we know, experientially, who we are?
“What is the highest truth?” the emperor asked Bodhidharma.
“I have no idea.”
“Then who is standing before me?”
“I don’t know.”
Instead of trying to describe who we are, let’s look right at our experience and keep in mind something John Audubon once said, “When the book and the bird disagree, always believe the bird.”
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