Thoughts by Richard Bleil
On her social media page, my friend asked the question “Who are You?” She went on to explain her challenge, asking those who answer to avoid talking about their jobs, hobbies, titles and so on.
When we ask people questions about themselves in our society, the normal (and easy) response is to talk about who we are. Sometimes it’s even our lead question. “It’s nice to meet you. So, what do you do?” But even asking somebody to say something about themselves, the normal response is work related. “I work at a garage but have been offered a job to design transmissions.” But is it who we are?
Many of us, me included, identify with our work. Even today I tell people that I used to teach. For years, I saw myself as a professor, a dean, a director. But it goes beyond that.
George Harrison once described himself as a gardener who was in a band. This is a combination of his hobby and his career all wrapped up in one little statement. Some people do favor their interests over their careers, but is that who they truly are? I was chatting with a new employee and asked her to tell me something about herself that she would like me to know. As it turns out, she plays four instruments. It was interesting, because they were not related. She plays bass guitar, but not lead or acoustic guitar. She plays Clarinet, but not sax. She plays piano, but not keyboards. She plays cello, but not violin. It’s a fascinating array, and a great launch point to play just about any other instrument she wants, as one was a string instrument, one plays with a bow, one keyboard based and one wind instrument. A truly fascinating array, but is that who she is? Those are her hobbies, not who she is.
So, who are we? We share pieces of our lives, what we do, what our interests are, but not really who we are.
I find, as I imagine most would, this to be a difficult question, and as I type this, it’s difficult for me to even continue. A few years ago, I was thrust into this question and my life kind of swirls around it as I find myself barely working, no longer using my degree, and living alone. I have been trying ever since to figure out the answer to just that question, namely, who I am, and what my value in this world is. I honestly have no answer, and don’t know who I am, or how I fit in this world, although, truth be told, I barely did earlier in my life.
Now I’m just an old man, with love left to give, but nobody with whom to share it. I have my friends, but they have families and lives and no time for me. I know they have love for me, and I for them, but I rarely see any of them.
The truth is that I don’t know who I am. Once upon a time I had a direction in my life, and a purpose. I contributed, now I am adrift.
In my youth, I never worried about employment. I knew that every time I sent out a few resumes, I would get an interview, and if I had an interview, I would get a job offer. After my time as dean, I sent out literally thousands of resumes, and had a handful of halfhearted interviews, and no offers. Now I have so much more experience than ever I’ve had in my youth, but when potential employers see me, I’m just old. I even had a young head of a department question the legitimacy of my degree because he had never seen a transcript in the manner that my graduate school kept them when I graduated. I happily ended that interview by walking out of the office.
Perhaps it’s such a difficult question for us to answer because we are not meant to answer it about ourselves. Perhaps only those who know us best can answer this question, but even then, the answer will never be truly correct. Ask a dozen people who know me who I am, and you’ll end up with a dozen different answers. We present ourselves in masks and conceal those things about ourselves that shame us the most. And yet, the question of who we are perhaps gives rise to a more important question. Who is it that we want to be? This can guide us in our behavior and decisions. If a child is throwing a tantrum in a family restaurant, do I want to be the guy who screams at the child or parents, or do I want to be the man who accepts that children have a lot of energy and accept that the child is just having a bad day? Do I want to be the man tolerant of other races, sexual orientations and opinion, or do I want to be the man who is judgmental and intolerant? Maybe I’m missing the point in this post. Perhaps I shouldn’t be asking who I am, but rather, am I the man that I want to be?