It seems like a simple question, but I dare you to answer it.
Did you answer with your name? Is that who you are? Because with a few exceptions, that name was picked out for you and is the least likely thing to say anything about who you really are?
Are you defined by your familial relationships: parent, child, brother, cousin, aunt? Or could it be that your friendships and romantic entanglements will sufficiently outline your identity?
Perhaps you are defined by your job? Does what you do for a living explain you? Or maybe it’s your hobbies and interests that we should be looking at, the things you do to escape from the day-to-day grind of existence.
Is it your political or religious affiliations that delineate you from those around you? Are you a Libertarian or a Socialist? Do you believe in the Hebrew God, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Blessed State of Nirvana, the Majesty of Zeus or do you eschew belief in that which you can not see and touch. Are these beliefs enough to set you apart from your fellows?
Now let me ask you one more question. Why is it important?
Why are we so fixated on our special and unique individuality? We strive so hard to be different from everyone else, to have our own things and the freedom to decide every little thing for ourselves but what does it gain us in the grand scheme of things?
For most of human history the concept of personal identity was subordinate to the place we held in society and the universe around us. Ancient societies were composed of collective groups which functioned as a whole. Today we may call them tribes or clans but structurally they were groupings of people who functioned as an interconnected unit. The individual was there to support the tribe. He or she may have been a hunter or a shaman, warrior or storyteller. The point is that each person had a role to play and each role was important because, for the tribe to function, everyone had to be doing his or her part. Identity was a function of the place you held within the tribe.
Expanding this idea outward, the tribe as a whole, held a place and function within the natural world. Most (what we arrogantly call) primitive societies understood themselves to be an important part of the physical and spiritual landscape around them. It was important that the tribe fulfill its role in the proper time and manner, to guarantee its own survival and discharge its duties to the land.
The gods were known to be a tribe of their own, with power and responsibilities greater than those of mortal men. The local tribe was a physical reflection of this divine configuration and each of these tribes (gods and men) depended upon the other to accomplish its goals. As an individual, you knew that if you failed your tribe, you endangered not only the survival of the family unit but the natural and spiritual order as well.
Setting aside simple tribal society and looking at the far more expansive Roman Empire, we can see that there was little change to this way of thinking. Although the shear size of Roman civilization reduced the importance of any particular tribe or family within the state, a Citizen of Rome was understood to be a functioning part of an ordered society. The standing of a citizen within the social hierarchy was integral to the success of the greater society and a benefit to the gods themselves. Citizenship gave the Roman many individual rights that other men and women did not enjoy, but these rights came with certain expectations and obligations that guaranteed security and well being for all.
This all started to change as monotheist beliefs began to seep into the fabric of the Roman world. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the goals of the individual citizen began to shift and the social fabric of society was turned on it’s head. Instead of a family or a tribe of gods to emulate, there was now only a single, rather self absorbed, deity to mimic. The importance of having a place within the tribe was diminished as personal salvation became the ultimate spiritual goal.
In a world that was going to end at any moment, only to be replaced by an eternal existence without pain or hardship, the immediate needs of the tribe became less vital. Our place in the now became an afterthought, replaced by our place in the world to come and a growing fixation on our own narrow wants.
Today we find ourselves living in the sum product of that revolution. We are a rapacious consumer society where the primary focus of each individual appears to be on their own selfish ends. We have been called “The Me Generation” but the truth is we are just the latest of a long line of “Me Generations” stretching back to that moment our ancestors decided to abandon the gods of their fathers in exchange for the empty promise of an everlasting life.
Who are you?
Look at the world around you for a moment. Pull your attention away from your computer screen, and your smart phone and all the little toys and games you use to distract you from the universe outside and ask yourself if you really like the world you see. If the answer is “yes” well good for you! I appreciate your reading this far and you are welcome to keep going, but this next bit really isn’t for you.
If, like me, you do not like a lot of what you see, then you have the answer to the question I’ve been asking. The world is a mirror to the self. Who we are is what we see out there looking back at us. It’s not a very pretty sight.
Now I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here! This is not just a spiel about becoming involved in the political process or protesting injustice a’la the Occupy movement (although those are both great ways to contribute toward change). I am not against individual rights and freedoms, both of which are things to be cherished and fought for. This is about living your beliefs, not just for yourself but for the world around you.
Every single thing we do contributes positively or negatively to the world around us. From the products we buy to the food we eat and the way in which we get ourselves from point A to point B, it is all reflected in the universe around us. The way we live our lives has a direct effect on people, places and events far beyond our vision.
Were your clothes stitched together in a sweatshop? Is your lawn green at the expense of drinking water downstream? Did your chicken sandwich fund a hate group? Will the chemicals in those AA batteries you tossed into the trash leech into the soil? Will children go without medical care because you don’t like the government taking your money? Do you know the answers to those questions? Do you care?
To know thyself is to know your influence on the world around you.
If you say that you support local businesses, maybe you should embody that support by frequenting them instead of Wal-Mart and Amazon. If you like fresh foods, find a farmers market instead of buying food out of season that has been shipped halfway across the world and pumped full of preservatives.
“Be the change you want to make,” is not a cliché, it’s the reality of the world we live in and it always has been.
If you are thinking that one person can’t possibly make a difference, you are exactly right. Yet, what one person can’t do, a community can. We just have to make the effort to do it together. We must expand our focus beyond our narrow little selves and re-join the tribe of humanity. In short, lets start giving a damn about each other for a change!
The question is not who you are but who we can be.