Who am I?
On another day this image could evoke a contemplation on birth, fertility or gestation. Today, because I’m seeing this chicken egg as the potential for an individual, it draws me into considerations of identity. It prompts me to ask, “Who am I?”
I once heard a story about a prince who was asked this question by his sage tutor. The prince gave his name and the sage shook his head. “That is what they call you. I want to know who are.” The prince answers with his title. “Are you not more than your title?” asks the wise. “Who are you?” “I am the son of a king,” the youth says. Again, the teacher shook his head. “Who are you?” This went on and on until the prince could answer no more. “If I am not all these things, who am I?” The sage looked the prince in the eyes. “Remove everything about you that can be named. What is left is who you are.” The prince frowned. “But that would be the same for everyone.” The sage patted his pupil on the hand. “Now, do you see? We are one in being, many in becoming.”
The story suggests that identity is a verb, not a noun. We are entities in process, lives under construction within the context of “interdependent co-arising.” This is a Buddhist phrase signifying that everything is contingent upon everything else, and that everything in the universe is emerging as a unified whole at every moment.
But there’s more to it. Being precedes becoming. I have to be, in order to become. So our deeper identity is even more fundamental. And that leads me to another story. This one actually happened. Ishi was a Native American who survived the genocide of the Yahi Indians of California by living in a cave for many years. Anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman were excited to find someone who spoke the nearly extinct language. Fortunately, they found a speaker of Yana, a related language, and this man understood a little of what Ishi was saying. With the tape recorder turned on, the first question they asked was “Who are you?” Ishi responded by telling a story that lasted two and a quarter hours. And he refused to stop until the story was fully told. Eventually the linguists discovered that he’d told part of a creation story called “How Wood Duck Wooed His Bride.” To explain who he was, Ishi told about the archetypal characters from whose wise and foolish acts he learned his strategies for living. He saw himself as one who enacts, re-creates or brings into the world through his living, the wisdom and behaviors of the creators. Such enactments of creation are at the heart of indigenous ritual around the world.
In both stories, individual identity equates with the whole, however that is perceived. Our labels, skin color, family, ethnicity and other attributes do not define us. Distinctions just make it easier for outsiders to separate one person from another. By increasing their number, incidental identity can be narrowed, a necessity for those in the identity business who rely on social security numbers, fingerprints and pin numbers.
What about DNA? It’s unique to every individual. Doesn’t that define us? Actually, DNA is just a blueprint for a particular body; it doesn’t define us as a person. Okay, I know I’m more than my body. What about being self-aware, conscious? Am I then an amalgam of a uniquely integrated body, mind and spirit system? That doesn’t work either. Heraclitus famously noted that we can’t step into the same river twice because it keeps changing. Just so, this body, mind and spirit—person—is not who it was yesterday. Add “anything that changes” to the list of disqualifying definitions of who we are.
A mind game provides some insight. Imagine that you’re the only person on the planet. It’s a fact. Everything is intact, as it is today, and you have complete access to all the riches and resources of the planet. No locked doors, everything is open, available. You have the world all to yourself and everything magically appears simply for the asking, including food, music and information. The only downside, nothing is running because there are no people to operate trains, planes and roller coasters. After a while, it gets very lonely. Devastatingly so. Studies have shown that isolated human beings don’t survive for very long.
Now, add another person of the same sex. When you were alone there was no distinction. Now there is. His skin is white, yours is black. He’s short, you’re tall. You like art and music; he prefers fast cars and hunting. Now add a third person of the same sex and there are even more distinctions. When asked by this person, you say “I’m the tall black guy who likes art and plays a guitar.” As people are added, distinctions become more and diverse. And as the numbers increase, each person becomes more unique and his or her bundle of differences can be used to identify him or her—incidentally.
But substantially, the differences do not define them. In the previous stories, the perception was that I am who I am as a consequence of the whole. Said another way, my being is grounded in the beingness that we share. The more of us there are and the more diverse we are, the more unique each individual becomes. Philosopher Beatrice Bruteau expressed this succinctly when she wrote that “Distinction and union arise together.” It may seem counterintuitive, but the more united we become, the greater is our opportunity to develop and express our individuality.
Union differentiates and personalizes
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J, Priest, paleontologist
In this image of an individual egg, I appreciate that its fundamental identity as a potential bird, rests neither in the attributes that will distinguish if from other chickens, nor in its function as a producer of more eggs and chickens, but in the fullness of its “chickenness.” So one chicken asks another, “Who are you?” The philosopher chicken answers, “I am the substance of chicken.”
Extrapolating, when asked about our own identity, an answer that approximates the truth is that we are the spirit, potential and substance of humanness. From my perspective, it references the soul. And through the evolution of our species and the planet, we’re coming to understand more of that mystery and what it means. For now, I appreciate the Indian greeting “namasté” because it comes close to acknowledging who we are in essence. It says, in effect, “I honor that place in you where, when you are in that place and I am in that place, we are one.”
Birth is bringing what is inside out. Ecstasy is bringing what is inside out. The whole natural order, the cosmogenesis, is a cosmogestation. It is growing as an embryo grows, organizing itself, and progressing from stage to stage, ‘fulfilling itself,’ so to speak, becoming what it is.
Beatrice Bruteau, Author, philosopher
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