While I was mingling with old and new faces at party the other day, a friendly looking chap walks up and says, “So, who’re you?”. In this age of social media, its unusual to get an in-person friend request, so I habitually rattled off my name and enough biographical details for him to place me in terms of history, geography and economics. The sort you might find in my byline below. But as I walked away from this conversation, I felt somehow that I hadn’t really answered his question. Who am I?
That evening, I googled myself and ended up wasting a gorgeous three-day summer weekend! The answer is less interesting than the question itself. Who am I?
Let’s eliminate the obvious right away — I’m not just my name. If that were true, and we were only our given name, we would be frozen in character when our parents named us. That reminds me of a story.
In the late-70s, before killer drones roamed the skies, global terror was created by the American satellite that was about to fall from the skies, a screaming ball of flaming metal traveling at a frightening velocity. Far on the other side of the planet, we kids in India were warned to stay indoors that July week, for death was coming from above. The Skylab was falling and the entire world was waiting prayerfully. Skylab this, Skylab that. But naturally, after the calamity had faded, it was inevitable that a couple in Punjab would hit upon just the right name for their newborn son — Skylab Singh; what better name would strike fear in the heart of the enemy?! I often think about that kid — does he fly high, the boy who’s now a man, does he do experiments in space, and does he always re-enter in a fiery ball? I certainly hope not, or we would have heard about it too.
We’re not our names at all, dear Skylab Singh, so relax and don’t worry about falling from the skies anymore.
Maybe the answer is to situate oneself relative to other people. We are sons to our parents, carrying their genes and influenced by their nurture. We look like them, we talk like them and, much as we like to think otherwise, we somehow think like our parents too. We are also friends with famous or infamous people — some of their celebrity may have rubbed on us along the way. For example, I went to bschool with someone who has of late become an exceedingly popular writer of pulp fiction — does our time together mean that I too can spin a good yarn? Maybe not, but if that bloke can write (and if that tripe is called writing), then I also think myself a writer. We are also parents, and inherit traits in the other direction too, son to father. Being the father of William H Gates III, the third, must have changed in some way the character of William H Gates II, the second, even though the latter came first. Counting out in this way, we are sons, fathers, friends, brothers, colleagues and mentors to other people. Our social network graph spirals out indefinitely in degrees, eventually touching all humanity, since history began, and goes back further to the first primate, continuing further back into the first mammal, then rewinding the story back to the fish that crawled, and going on (keep pace now, we’re almost there) to the multi-cellular goop and then to the simple creatures that bubbled around in the primordial soup. Relativity is great, but the variables are too many and the search likely futile. We’re obviously not a sum of all our relationships with this world.
Sometimes we describe ourselves as a collection of social and cultural identities. An Indian, Hindu, American, Educated, Middle-Class, West Coast, Global Citizen, maybe? These are boxes in which we can put ourselves, but these cannot be a fulfilling way to describe ourselves. Cultural boxes may be meaningful in the society at a point in time, but will eventually lose their meaning, or even acquire the opposite meaning in time. These boxes are just labels, but they are not the thing itself. I am reminded of that painting “The Treason of Images” which shows a pipe, below which is written in French “this is not a pipe”. An image is not the thing itself. We are not the labels that we, or others, put on us. We are something entirely different from the words that can be used to describe us.
This is not a pipe. Photo Credit (wikipedia)
A little self-reflection is called for here. For many of us, self-reflection is limited to brushing and combing in front of the bathroom mirror. We know what we “look like”, but are we defined completely by our looks? If we were our looks, people across the world would not spend Billions to look like someone else. We’re not merely the face we see in the mirror.
The search isn’t over; it hasn’t even begun in full earnest yet. Granted, we are not what we look like. But are we our body, since we identify so completely with it…we’re identical with it?
People who lose limbs don’t become someone else. People grow in size, change appearance, and still feel they are the same person all the way. Dead bodies still look like the people they used to be. We’re inside a body, but where exactly inside the body, and what is our relationship with this body? What separates a living person from a dead body? This isn’t just a hipster question to impress people with at parties. Sage Ramana Maharshi contemplated what it means to die, and attained enlightenment by just thinking only about this question, following it to the ultimate conclusion. So, ask yourself this: Who am I?
This is an absurd question, isn’t it? We know who we are. We have a name, and we’re situated in space and in time. We have experienced a series of experiences, we have our memories. We have parents, friends, relatives and colleagues. We belong to circles on Venn Diagrams. We carry out actions, and we think thoughts. When we see things, they are seen by us. When we hear things, they are heard by us.
When we touch things, they are touched by us. We are the focal point of all our senses. We are the generative point of all our actions. We are the lead protagonist of our story, a story that has a beginning, middle and an end. We are the center of our Universe, that’s who we are.
No really, not that borrowed answer. Ask again, Who Am I?
My name is a temporary label, my location in space and time is relative. My experiences are impermanent and my memory is fickle. My actions couple with the reaction of the Universe (Newton, I believe, figured this out). My thoughts use words, ideas and logical structures that are borrowed from others. My senses convey only a fraction of the reality to me, hiding the microwaves, the low pitches, and so on. Why, there appears nothing in me that stands on its own — everything about me is relative.
We run after hard, material things because we believe they will help us become someone, some-thing of substance and permanence. We want experiences that will define us, memories that shape our outline.
We want money, we want fame, we want the whole world — this hunger is so intense. We crave fulfillment in this world of passing experiences, and get frustrated when these experiences peak, and then pass away as well. Maybe the outside isn’t the right place to find fulfillment. “Wrong Way” signs on the freeway. Turn around and go inside.
Or maybe the question needs to be unasked — Who Am I?