What Defines You?

What Defines You?

I believe there is a fundamental distinction between one’s life and one’s identity or sense of self. These are two very different planes of existence that can be intertwined, but are ultimately separable concepts. A good person can find themselves in circumstances that force them into a life where unethical or immoral acts become unavoidable. Conversely, someone with selfish, malicious or nihilistic inner values can stumble into a life path filled with seemingly positive and benevolent deeds. While perhaps rare, I have witnessed such dichotomies between one’s actions and one’s core character.

Consider the example of a police officer who spends their career protecting and serving their community. On its face, this life path seems admirable and virtuous. However, is it directly connected to that individual’s true sense of self? Their motivations, their worldview, their deepest held beliefs about humanity? Perhaps to some degree, but it may also be largely disconnected from their identity. This person could harbor racist views, seethe with anger and bitterness, pass harsh judgements on others – or conversely, they could be endlessly forgiving, exude kindness and remain stubbornly oblivious to life’s harsh realities. Each of these aspects of one’s inner self contributes to the outward life in some way, but does not singularly define it. Who we are at our core guides our choices, but does not make those choices for us.

Free will is indeed an interesting philosophical consideration here. Our sense of self, our fundamental character and personality – whatever term one wishes to use – provides us with a baseline set of predispositions. A series of default scripts for how to perceive situations and how to potentially react. In the course of our lives, we may choose to follow those scripts, or we may deviate based on the vagaries of our current emotional state, the nuances of each situation, or any number of external or internal influences. If we are angry or joyful on a given day, that transient emotion may sway us away from our core identity’s predilections. But that baseline still exists as a foundation.

So to pose the original question – are one’s life and one’s sense of self truly distinct concepts? I believe they are, though they exist in a reciprocal relationship. My life is the outward manifestation, the culmination of choices I consciously make each day and how I ultimately choose to conduct myself. But my self, my identity, is the toolbox of predilections, skewed perspectives, and programmed responses that I bring to each choice. It provides the pieces I have to maneuver.

If we extend the metaphor of life as one grand game of chess, then our self can be seen as the rulebook defining how each piece is allowed to move across the board. Am I a straightforward pawn capable of only simple forward strides? A cavalier knight given to indirect and surprising shifts? Or am I the powerful queen able to stake out new terrain in every direction? Our self provides the basic constraints, but a human mind is still making the decisions on how to actually navigate each position.

And this metaphor illuminates the key distinction – sometimes in life, like in chess, we make moves that blatantly defy the prescribed rules of the game. A pawn that stops obeying its programming and starts moving erratically. A knight that impolitely abandons the board entirely. The pastor raised with upstanding values who inexplicably cheats on his wife. The trustworthy friend who devastatingly betrays our confidence. In these cases, the decisions made directly contradict the core self, the underlying identity. Perhaps it is because their sense of self truly wants that sinful outcome after all. Or perhaps it is because they are human beings desperately fighting against their own natures, their own self-prescribed paths which they have become dissatisfied with.

So I put the question back to you – how do you define your own self? And how has that self, your fundamental character and worldview, influenced or failed to influence the life you’ve lived so far? Have your days been spent obediently following the rulebook of your deepest values and beliefs? Or have you often defied your own basic programming to stake out new territories? Is your sense of self ultimately the prime decision-maker, or have you equipped yourself with the wisdom and situational awareness to understand when to override your own baseline inclinations?

You may find parts of your identity that are indeed admirable and you wish to reinforce through your life decisions. But you may also uncover unseemly aspects of your core self that require conscious effort to overcome. The endless struggle between one’s life and one’s self lies in constantly navigating that divide.

For some, their sense of self is relatively stable and their life represents an honest reflection of that identity. A kindhearted person leads a life filled with empathy and compassion. A hotheaded cynic becomes perpetually embroiled in negativity and conflict. There is congruence between their actions and their innermost nature. But for many others, life is an endless tug-of-war between dueling identities.

We all contain multitudes within us – ambition vying with laziness, generosity warring with greed, morals butting up against base desires. Our lives could go any number of directions depending on which part of our fragmented selves we choose to empress in a given moment. The insecure misanthrope who nevertheless summons the strength to perform a selfless act. The righteous truth-teller who tells a white lie to protect someone’s feelings. In these cases, we are behaving in defiance of our primary self-definited identity.

So which is the “true” self? The one that emerges situationally, or the one that seems to motivate us by default across our lives? This is a philosophical quandary without a simple answer. Perhaps the self is a static, rigid concept and we are constantly making choices to step outside of it. Or perhaps the self is more fluid and elastic, capable of updating and evolving based on the sum total of our contradictory decisions over a lifetime.

One perspective is that we are not bound by our self-identity, but we must wrestle with the weight of it. Our core beliefs and values exist as a kind of psychological inertia – the path we will follow if we simply let ourselves drift without making any active choices. But we possess the free will to actively redirect our course, to spend our finite stores of energy and discipline to propel ourselves in other directions, even if only briefly or situationally.

From this view, life is the ultimate manifestation of those temporary course corrections. Someone with a largely benevolent self-identity may still make selfish, hurtful choices at times when their energy has lapsed and they’ve fallen back into their path of least resistance. Conversely, someone burdened with a profoundly negative inner nature may episodically rise above it when inspired by a surge of hope or willpower.

Another perspective is that the self is simply a convenient fiction – we are free-willed beings creating our identities anew every moment based on the choices we make, untethered from any fundamental internal programming. From this radically deconstructed stance, life and self are not easily separable. We simply “are” based on how we decide to conduct ourselves, unconstrained by an immutable inner essence.

These are just a couple of the myriad philosophical frameworks for trying to understand the dynamic between how we see ourselves and how we actually live our lives. The debate rages on through the ages between camps of determinism, existentialism, rationalism, and every other -ism that has tried to model the human condition.

Ultimately, the answers may be intensely personal and unique to each individual’s experience. Some may feel their life has been a faithful embodiment of who they truly are. Others may feel endlessly conflicted between the person they believe themselves to be and the person their actions show them to be.

Wherever you currently fall on that spectrum, the journey is the same – using periods of honest self-reflection to become aware of both your life’s realities and your self’s core makeup. With that heightened awareness, you can make conscious choices about whether to strive for congruence or to purposefully depart from your ingrained notions of identity.

The path of life presents infinite potential for us to reinforce, to reshape, or to utterly defy our own senses of self. That existential tension is what makes us eternally question who we truly are and how we wish to live. Perhaps there need not be a reconciliation between the two – life and self can co-exist in an endless dance of contradiction and harmony.