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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


We humans are profoundly occupied with our identities, whether searching for meaning in our lives or inventing our public personae. Who we are matters—to us and, we believe, to everyone else. Yet for all the energy and emotion we expend in crafting our identity it remains an unfinished portrait that we may only realize over a lifetime. Even then, we may learn that our true identity differs from what we have represented to the world, and we are often loath to accept that difference. We are who we think we are, or at least that's what we tell ourselves.

Early in our lives—generally as we develop a sense of self, independent of how our parents, caregivers, family or friends see us, we begin the search for who we are. We may audition various alter egos in our adolescence and perhaps longer, throughout our adulthood. We want to differentiate ourselves, assert our unique qualities, or maybe we want to blend into the background and hide from scrutiny. But once we settle into ourselves, that is where we will remain; unless we are tested of course—generally through personal crisis.

The longer we remain unchanged—fixed in our sense of self the more we will resist attempts by anyone to describe us in terms that do not correspond with our identity—in fact we will spend much more time as we age telling the world who we are not. Despite our insecurities, or perhaps because of them we feel the need to strongly reject attempts to label us, describe us or collectivize us unless those images portray virtues we think acceptable. We do this even as we ourselves judge, label and collectivize those around us. It is hard to escape this--even if we are self-aware and know we are fallibile. We are not wired to deal with large numbers of people as individuals—and so we classify, and group those we encounter by some internal criteria or more simply as us and them.

Of course, we are no strangers to this hypocrisy. What we say and what we do are often at odds. The last thing we want to be is just like everyone else. Even in matters of politics, religion and sexuality where group identity, within the narrow constraints of our self-determined membership, is acceptable or even encouraged, we still have the need to assert an identity apart from the communities to which we may belong. We fiercely defend our right to define ourselves even when no one cares or has co-opted that right, perhaps because we inwardly know that we are not alone in questioning who we really are.

We may not want to think of ourselves as men and women living lives of quiet desperation but for many, the only alternative is to live a life that remains unexamined. You may have seen it or perhaps experienced it yourself, the willful suspension of honest self-appraisal. Fake it not till you make it, but till you no longer know who you have become. For those trapped in this self deception there is a ceaseless need to prop up the Hollywood set that is the public self even as the termites of doubt gnaw away at the carefully fabricated façade. In the words of Oscar Wilde: "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are other people's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."

When crisis is upon us we reveal the truth. We are brave or craven, honorable or deceitful, self-less or selfish. We may think we will act this way or that—but only those who have faced difficulties know what they are made of. All projections fall away in the confrontation of action, our talking game is stagecraft, decrepit armor that we cannot depend upon. What we would or could or should have done matters not, only what we did. Wisdom is knowing this about ourselves, that whatever stuff we are made of is revealed to us and to the world at once in crisis. At times as perilous as those we presently face surely most of us will find out who we truly are.

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