Who am I?

Three simple words. One weighty answer.

The response to this question which rises, deep, visceral, immediate from our bones, reveals more about ourselves than anything else we could voluntarily disclose. The labels with which we choose to identify, and consequently to accept as being accurate descriptors for the beings that we are, tell us how we see this world. And the strength with which we cling to them, tells us how we see the next.

How do I answer?

Am I my profession or education? The degree hanging on my wall or the job I perform — do I carry it with me everywhere? There is a big difference between working as a teacher, lawyer, businessman, or mechanic… and being those things. There is a fine line between understanding your professional occupation, and expecting others to address you by its title in every sphere of life. There are doctors who work as doctors, and those who are Doctors — everywhere from social media to the grocery store, as if the celestial essence of apples and pears put any store by man-made distinctions wheeling by. It is one thing for us to be pleased by an accomplishment; it is quite another to brandish it as a token with which to wallop over the head every person we meet.

Am I my family name? Do I have pride in my bloodline, as if I could not have belonged to another stream by a simple twist of fate? When I stand with what I consider to be my “clan” or my “tribe,” do I feel a sense of pride surging through me, as if I have somehow earned a special position simply by being born? What, truly, is in a name? We may acknowledge a root extending into the past, without parading it as a medal of honor in the present; we may be grateful for a map drawing out where we have come from, without using it to guarantee safe passage to where we are going.

Am I the role I play? Husband or wife. Mother or father. Son or daughter. Friend or guardian. Is my entire personality ruled by the character I see myself as? If I lost the thing which dictates my identity — such as, God forbid, my child — would I cease to exist? If all external factors and circumstance disappeared, would anything of me remain? A role, in truth, is nothing more than a function — and there is nothing wrong with fulfilling a function we have been temporarily granted in this temporary life; the problem arises, however, when we adhere to it in such a manner that if it were taken away, the grief of its absence would consume us.

Am I my hobbies? My interests? My talents? Is what I do, who I am? Am I the titles, labels, or identities which I assign myself? Am I the distinctions, praises, or criticisms others assign me? Am I my belief system or ideology? If someone disregards the Who I see myself as, does a great anguish burn within me, or do I remain unchanged?

Do I consider myself to be all of these things? Or none at all?

Do I know who I am? Or, at the very least, who I am not?

And if I know who I am not, and if I have sifted all of that away — at the end, what remains?

Who am I?

“You might say, “I know I am an immortal spirit,” or “I am tired of this mad world, and peace is all I want”—until the phone rings. Bad news: The stock market has collapsed; the deal may fall through; the car has been stolen; your mother-in-law has arrived; the trip is cancelled, the contract has been broken; your partner has left you; they demand more money; they say it’s your fault. Suddenly there is a surge of anger, of anxiety. A harshness comes into your voice; “I can’t take any more of this.” You accuse and blame, attack, defend, or justify yourself, and it’s all happening on autopilot. Something is obviously much more important to you now than the inner peace that a moment ago you said was all you wanted, and you’re not an immortal spirit anymore either. The deal, the money, the contract, the loss or threat of loss are more important. To whom? To the immortal spirit that you said you are? No, to me. The small me that seeks security or fulfillment in things that are transient and gets anxious or angry because it fails to find it. Well, at least now you know who you really think you are.”

–Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth–