One of the bloggers I follow has just posted a poem on identity tracing her “self” through the roles she plays in life, as wife, mother, grandmother etc. and this, in conjunction with my Bible verse for the day from Psalm 139, 13-14*, started me thinking again about how we identify ourselves. It’s one of those puzzles that usually hits me when I’m lying in bed at night and it’s a very efficient way of rapidly attracting Morpheus.
Given our intrinsic human egocentricity, the question: Who am I? will never fail to fascinate us. Like my blogging friend, we usually answer by naming our predominant function(s), reminding me of a poem I wrote for a friend several years ago when her last “baby” fledged and left her with an empty nest. Her role had been mother for so many years that in spite of the many other important functions in her life – loving wife, daughter and sister, popular teacher, committed church member, good friend and many more – she was aware of only the gaping hole left by the departure of her children.
Men frequently identify themselves by their occupation and social status. A male friend of mine was plunged into depression almost to the point of suicide when he was made redundant. Showing his business card, he said: “That’s me, that’s who I am. And now I’m not. I feel I don’t exist any more.” He was also a devoted father and husband, but those roles depended on him providing for his family, a role which he could no longer fulfil.
A similar situation occurs when we get older, retire from our jobs, and our children have become independent: we lose a lot of our perceived identity. We may still be F’s spouse, G’s parent or parent-in-law or X, Y and Z’s grandparent, but those are often secondary roles: F, G, X. Y and Z may no longer depend on us. Who cares what degrees or qualifications we have, what objectives we achieved or what positions we held? We are sidelined. The power we wielded has trickled down the drain. Our advice and opinions are no longer relevant. Nobody knows or cares who or what we used to be. We are just that old man or old woman that lives down the road. And we, too, wonder who we are.
I’ve been amusing myself lately by doing some of those infantile quizzes where you answer 10 or 15 questions about your likes, dislikes and reactions, and have been told “You are an Octopus” – “You are Little Miss Sunshine” – “You are the musical Wicked” and “You are the colour Purple”. What is the common factor here that relates to me?
This brings me to the point I’ve been rambling up to: stripped of any relational function in family, society or company, who am I? Who is the self at the core of my being, the central essence that was there at birth, has been constant throughout my life and will still be there at my death even if I am destroyed by dementia? Who is that individual soul, behind the persona? This is the point where I usually fall asleep, my brain unable to find a satisfactory answer.
It begs the question of whether there is actually an essential soul or whether that which we call the soul is no more than the sum of the chemicals and neurological impulses in our brains. From the dawn of human existence, most civilisations and cultures have conceived of a human soul or spirit, some conscious part of our being that can survive brain death. Is this, as Richard Dawkins et al. argue, mere wishful thinking? Or do the reports of near-death experiences indicate something else? Cleverer and wiser ones than I have pondered and pontificated on this, which goes way beyond the confines of a blog post.
My point here is not whether or not my soul is immortal; that’s something I’ll find out for certain at the latest when I die; my question is, what exactly is my inmost being that is so fearfully and wonderfully made? Will I ever stay awake long enough to reach a conclusion?
- For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.