In the musical Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean sings a gut-wrenching song (some might say melodramatic!) called "Who am I?" as he struggles with his self-identity. I pose that same question to you now: Who are you?
For many people -- especially those in successful careers -- they are their jobs: lawyer, doctor, executive, artist. Others may define themselves in terms of their family responsibilities: parent, spouse, caregiver. In other words, how often do we identify who we are by what we do?
But what happens when our circumstances change and we are no longer who we thought we were? The economic times of the past few years have caused many people to examine this question. The danger of tying our self-identities to something external to ourselves is how fragile that identification can be. What happens when we retire, we lose our jobs, or we change careers? Do we become a different person then? Identifying with our familial roles isn't any more stable because they change as well: children grow up, parents pass away, relationships with spouses evolve.
Instead, maybe we should look deeper into ourselves in order to find the source of our being.
But does doing so reveal something deeper that we can call an "I"? The Buddhist tradition would say "no." Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh poses this thought experiment: close your eyes and imagine yourself as a child. What did you look like? What were your thoughts, desires, worries? What did you do every day? Open your eyes and examine yourself now. You look different than you did decades ago. From a scientific standpoint, the entire cellular structure of your body has changed: old cells have died and been replaced by new ones. Your mind is different too: you think about different things; you've had experiences that have molded you. The neurological structure of your brain is different as new memories have been added and old ones faded. Because they both change, neither our bodies nor our minds can be considered "I."
In a branch of Hinduism known as Vedanta, the world and we, as inhabitants of the world, are considered temporary illusions. Like the Buddhists, they see humans as finite creatures constantly changing and dependent on the world around them -- a mortal and impermanent condition. But where the Buddhist looks inward and sees emptiness, the Hindu sees the Atman: that which lies behind consciousness, the "unseen seer," the "unheard hearer." Furthermore, this Atman is nothing less than a spark of the divine infinite cosmic soul known as Brahman.
For the Jew, Christian, or Muslim, looking deeply might reveal the human soul -- a concept developed by Plato (and later incorporated into these traditions as early followers studied Platonic philosophy). The soul is associated with the body but unlike the changing and impermanent body, it is considered eternal.
In none of these traditions, however, is what we do who we are. This is not to say that our worldly actions are unimportant, but only that our self-identity cannot be defined by them.
By moving beyond the material, the superficial, the most common ideas of who we are, maybe we can begin to discover deeper truths about ourselves -- even about the universe around us. Maybe by letting go of our perceptions of who are, we can move past the suffering caused when the inevitable changes happen in our lives, because we will no longer derive our self-worth from something which is finite in the first place -- something that is going to change.
So I ask again: who are you?
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