12/07/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

I Think, Therefore I Don't Know Who the Hell I Am

"I often look at myself in the mirror and say, Who the hell's that?" -- Harold Pinter

Many years ago, a good friend of mine at NBC News was fired from a job that he loved and had done well for more than 10 years. He was a good writer and an attractive and intelligent presence on the air, assigned to reviewing theater in New York. He became a voice in the theater world, which didn't go to his head but did go to his heart. He and the job were becoming to each other, "becoming" in the sense of enhancing.

I had long observed that many people working in television were drawn to the lights, and if the lights went out, especially the red light of the live camera, many would cease to exist, at least in their own eyes. I expected my friend to express his pain at becoming yet another casualty of an inequitable and irrational business.

At our next lunch, I asked, "How do you feel?"

He said he was fine, and, with certainty, added, "I know who I am."

In my lifetime, I have rarely heard others make such an absolute declaration of self and self-knowledge, although there are many who behave as if they could. I, however, have no such clarity. I do not know, in fact, what those words mean: "I know who I am!"

"Who I am" has been a quest. The answer is elusive. Or should I say, answers? They change over time, sometimes years, sometimes day-to-day. I am female, a clear and certain aspect of my identity. I was once a daughter and a sister, now no longer. I am still a woman, an older woman. I have been a wife -- twice; a mother -- of two and then, tragically, one. I am a grandmother. I am also, or have been, a friend, writer, reporter, columnist, producer, radio and television executive, colleague, and dean and tenured professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Tenure in academia is a form of identity.

I am at one with myself when I sleep and, sometimes, when I write. I have had roles and jobs in which I felt that I was an actor in the play of life; most times a walk on; years as a minor character; sometimes the lead; now, on occasion, a cameo appearance with a recognizable but obsolete image. Some roles felt more natural than others. Sometimes I couldn't wait to get on stage, and sometimes I couldn't wait to get off. When I am asked to introduce myself at those meetings where you pin your name in plastic on your chest, I must decide who I should appear to be. Of course, I fit the picture to the frame, but I never feel it is even a close likeness. My self, if anything, is like an inner bead of mercury, unstable, rolling around without boundaries.

Am I one or many? Am I solitary or social? Am I kind or cruel? Civilized or savage? Physical or psychological? Visible or invisible? Am I an animal wrapped in a thin skin of transparent consciousness? Or am I consciousness shrink-wrapped in a body wrapped in experience?
The self is far from self-evident. Though turgid treatises and luminous masterpieces have been written about the self, we can no more know our self than we can see our own face. (What the libraries teach us is that the human being seems to be heliotropic, in which the helio is the self.) Throughout history, sages have groped along the walls of the inner cave for a ray of consciousness pointing us to true self-knowledge.

From earliest times, we are directed:

"Know Thyself" from the Oracle at Delphi.

According to Plato, Socrates said: "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Descartes said: "I think, therefore I am."

Buddha and David Hume proposed that there is no essential core self.

The Book of I stops short at the gate of the academic and philosophical search. It halts before imagined planes of a soul or a divine self within. It is not a taxonomy of the Idea of self. It is not an analysis of theories of self. It is not an autopsy of the history of the concept of self. The collection speaks of and to the practical self, the person others recognize when they meet you on the street. It is a selective exhibit of shards excavated from the written history of human thought, a bouquet of pithy, illuminating, funny, profound, and often elegant writing.

The search for identity, occurring in the context of a contemporary ethos of rugged individualism, collectively carried to extreme, even unto selfishness and narcissism, is an obsession in our time. The Book of I is designed to report the story and history of the self and to provide recognition, reassurance and, I hope, a smile.

Adapted from the Introduction. Click here for more on The Book of I and The Sound Bite Library