Saturday, 16 July 2016

Who Are You?

Last night I tweeted a blog of mine from a year ago that was built around a question uttered by the character Deckard in the film Blade Runner. Deckard inquires of his host, Eldon Tyrell, about his employee Rachael, "How can it not know what it is?" In the story Rachael is a replicant, a manufactured being, an artificial human. In the blog I turned this seemingly reasonable question into a matter of personal identity and tried to show that, actually, knowing who or what you are is, in fact, extremely rare amongst living creatures, if not impossible. So the more reasonable question is actually how could one know what one is?

Its this identity question that I want to keep in focus in today's blog. I want each of you reading to ask yourself the question who and what you are... and to answer with some measure of responsibility and honesty. Its very easy to lie to yourself about this question and I'm personally in no doubt that this is the thing we probably lie to ourselves the most about. I want to focus on this today because this week I had cause to have to describe myself to someone I'd never met before and it pulled me up short to actually stand back from all the narratives I'm daily inhabiting and take a look at myself. 

It occurred to me that who I am doesn't actually fit in very well with many prevailing narratives in the world at large. I would, for example, make a terrible employee and could not present the blank, robotic, corporate face to an employer that I assume many of them want. I openly despise corporations, their ethics and even their very existence. And I'm not overly conscientious in hiding the fact I feel this way. In a world in which we are told HR departments now routinely trawl social media for information on their prospective employees I would not survive very long. 

But there are other things besides this. I'm not a family man, something that some would find suspicious. In current society some would also look down on middle aged, single men with suspicion. Indeed, only this week former Conservative Party leadership candidate, Andrea Leadsom, our new Environment Minister in the UK, someone who is in favour of fox hunting and doesn't believe in man-made climate change, seemed to suggest that men seeking to work with children could be pedophiles. As a person who myself started a youth club for children aged 7-11 some years ago, a club which is still running now over 20 years later, this made me feel under suspicion. I was already well aware that some find it easy to be suspicious about so-called "loners" but when such thoughts can be uttered openly it makes you just want to hide yourself away. Which, of course, wouldn't help either. The loner, the person who doesn't join in, the antisocial person, is someone distrusted too. The free spirit can equally be typecast as the contrarian or troublemaker.

What this reveals is that "who you are" or "who people see you to be" is not something benign. It has consequences. This is not just true in regard to how you see yourself which, psychologically speaking, is a vital component of your own physical and psychological health. Socially speaking, this matters too. It could very well frame what people these days refer to as your "life chances". We do not live in a world where points of view don't matter. Everything is interconnected as I've repeated many times in many of my blogs. What people see when they look at you does matter because, dependent on how they view it, it will frame their response to you and which pigeon hole they stick you in. This is what concerned me this week when I was asked by someone to describe myself. It suddenly occurred to me that if I was nail-bitingly honest in terms of how I see myself then, I assumed, it might not come across so well to someone who doesn't have my context of myself to see it in.

Let me be clear that this is not because I see myself as some sort of bad or disreputable person. I have done my share of bad things but, by my age, I'd imagine most people have a list of things about them that they'd rather not share. No, it was more the case that who I see myself to be now has diverted from "mainstream" ideas and has gone down a more personal and individual path. Diverting in this way does not come without cost because the more individual you become the less you fit in elsewhere. My life has been one where I've either let myself be blown by the winds of circumstance in what I'm sure some might see as a careless way or in which I have made idiosyncratic choices for my own personal reasons. I haven't had other people to worry about in doing this as I've largely been single. So I don't fit the model of many people who have family and build lives tailored to communal needs. It follows that my goals and motives are often entirely different to those of many others or from what might be expected.

If you've read many of my blogs I would hope that this might have come through. I am often an anti-conventional person in a very conventional world. This week I was forced to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself what that means. I think the answer is in many respects negative. It seemed to suggest to me that only those who conform can get on in the world. But, of course, it all depends here what terms you want to use to describe "getting on" or "achievement" or "progress" in this life. I'm not motivated by having stuff or a particular job title or various social statuses at all. My aims in life, such as they are, are more personal and, dare I suggest it, more philosophical or even spiritual. The most important thing in life, I think, is peace of mind. In the old "quality versus quantity" debate about life, "Would you rather have a short life of quality or a long life of quantity?", I've always chosen the quality over the quantity. I've never seen value in life itself as just an amount of stuff. Not all lives are equal and not all lives are worth living. This is one reason why I'm not so hard on those who commit suicide or on those who end their life humanely when they pass a personal threshold for its enjoyment.

It all comes back to this question "Who am I?". I'm sure there are many people who look in the mirror and see someone they do not want to be. Maybe you reading this now are one of them. Its often a temptation to get lazy and fall back on some notion that things have just happened and you can do nothing about it now. But we all know that is not true. As someone influenced by existentialist thinking I would have to be the last person who said that we should not take responsibility for ourselves. That sensibility is largely about doing exactly this and I feel that urge and desire to do so. This is not the desire to fit in. Its the desire to be able to look in the mirror and say "Yes, I am taking responsibility for myself, for who I am, for how I act, for how I interact with others. I want to be someone who can stand and look at themselves without any shame." This is basically saying that I want to be the kind of person who can live life without any bad faith towards myself. This is what I call "peace of mind".

I have been in relationships in the past and this question of "peace of mind" was an active factor in the relationship. I have felt the need to change myself in order to fit into something else and this has caused me trouble and personal turmoil. But at the end of the day the only person you are always in the presence of is yourself and so doing what promoted this peace of mind has always won out. You simply cannot live life whilst you are fighting yourself or acting contrary to your own internal monologue. But this is not a question of always giving in. Showing good faith towards yourself and promoting your own peace of mind is often about having courage and disciplining yourself to do things you know you should do but, for some reason, don't want to. So I do not see what I'm speaking in favor of as "the easy way out". Far from it. It can often be the hard way. I am a person who has in the past suffered from severely disabling panic attacks and yet during the winter of 1997 I forced myself to take terrifying train journeys to university. That took courage and not a little amount of balls. I could easily have run away. But if I had I wouldn't have academic qualifications now. Both that struggle and the qualifications are now part of the narrative I tell myself about myself.

I see myself as standing within some narrative about human beings and how they should be. It is a deeply human narrative and about that mixture of things that I think make up being a human being. Much of my blog has been about these things in case you haven't read it or noticed as you read it. I invite you to read older blogs to read my thoughts on this. Now, of course, this, in itself, is quite a philosophical context. But, I wonder, how do you see yourself? What context do you set yourself in? What kind of person do you want to be? What would allow you to be at peace about yourself when you look in the mirror? What is the narrative you tell yourself about yourself?

I think its a question we all need to ask and we can only become better people by doing so. Just don't expect it to be easy.

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