'What if I find, in the quiet, that all I am is the sum of my habits?'
--The Survivor by The Normals
Ancient is the aphorism 'know thyself.' For centuries many have interpreted it in their way, seen wisdom in it, or applied their own views to it. In my pursuit of wholeness, healthy living, I have experienced that self-awareness precedes growth; in the art of living, it is the informed in 'informed decision.' It is therefore my personal belief that knowing ones self is essential to living a healthy, controlled, and balanced life. I will not attempt to prove or defend that here. What follows accepts this, and is for the consideration of those who also value self-awareness.
I cannot shake this notion, despite our language and culture, that there is a profound difference between what I am and what I do. That should seem obvious, yet all over the world people allow themselves to believe that because they do a thing (like fail a test) they are a thing (like a failure). This kind of confusion can ruin someone if they don't learn to draw a line between the 'do's and 'am's. Where, though, does one draw the line between the two? What would such a line look like? Consider the following:
I am human. I am male. I am caucasian. I am a brunet. These are all observable facts of my biology, intrinsic to my being.
I am a son. I am a brother. I am a husband. These are all unobservable references to my relationships with other people, not intrinsic to my being.
I am a programmer. I am a hobbyist potter. I am an entrepreneur. These are all labels; shortcuts in language slapped on me for simplicity's sake.
All of these things are phrased as things that I am, but many of them could be rephrased as things I do. In this way, I perceive a linguistic confusion; an obfuscation of identity. Let us examine the two sides of this dichotomy.
I am a male caucasian brunet human. These are definitions of my genetics. I was born this way1, and I will die this way. I can bleach my hair and pretend to be blond, but it will grow back brown. I can tan my skin and pretend to be exotic, but it will fade, and I would remain caucasian. I could have any number of surgeries to alter my appearance to another gender or species, but I would still be inherently (at the very least genetically) male and human. I could only at best pretend to be blond, foreign, female, or inhuman; but these pretenses would not be what I am, merely things I do.
I program. I write programs for a living. I write code. Conventionally, this makes me a programmer. This is not intrinsic to my being. It is merely a label applied to me to describe what I do for a living. Because I work for myself (and my business partners), I am an entrepreneur? This is another label that says more about my job, than my being. I could stop programming today, and I would no longer be a programmer, but I would only have changed what I do.
After working in the abstract, I like to use my hands to craft some tangibles. I like to mold clay into functional pottery; mostly cups and bowls for friends. This is just something I do for fun, but you could say that I am a potter. You could say that, but you'd be wrong.
If someone were trying to be precise by avoiding assigning attributes to me, they might say "Tyler programs." In the present tense does this mean I program now (like a new baby speaks its first words, in this moment), that I am capable (like Teller2 speaks), or that I do it regularly (like Penn2 speaks)? While one could spend a few extra words and say "Tyler programs for a living," this ambiguity is most often solved with attributive labels. Let's face it, it's just easier to say "vegetarian"3 than "does not eat meat, hasn't eaten meat for a while, and isn't expected to eat meat for a while yet" or "runner" than "runs regularly, has been running regularly, and is expected to continue to run regularly."
With the way we communicate muddling the difference between what we do and what we are, it seems inevitable that people would begin to confuse their identities with their activities.
The idea of "who I am" was proposed to me, but what is that? Is who I am, what I am? Or something else entirely? The phrase "who I am" threatened to muddle the question further. In my discussions with others, they kept going back to the "who," which brings us back to the beginning: identity.
I identify as (among other things) a husband. Being a husband means that I both am male and do keep4 a wife. To identify as a husband, therefore, combines both what I am and what I do. It seems then that who I am (who/what I identify as) is a third thing which intersects (or perhaps bridges) the two. That is, what I identify as intersects (or bridges) what I am and what I do. It cannot, therefore, divide them.
This does, however, illuminate the important point that identity is not what we are, anymore than our actions are what we are.
This does not, however, illuminate the original question of how to separate our actions from what we are. I am confident they are different. I am confident differentiating them is important for healthy and whole living. I am confident there is a solid and absolute distinction between them. I feel it should be obvious, and should feel obvious to many. In spite of that, I see many of my peers confusing the two, relinquishing their power to change to the hopelessly externalizing notion they are their decisions. When I repeat mistakes, or when I don't, such a notion tempts me as well.
I am at a loss for how to define a standard for telling them apart; a maxim to help prevent one from confusing what they do for what they are. When looking at an aspect of me, how can I definitively say whether that aspect is part of what I am, or merely something I do? To quote Justice Stewart5, "I shall not today attempt further to define [it]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it..."