“Who am I?”, a seemingly simple question which is as profound as it is disquieting. I am a student, an aspiring academic, a bit of a goofball, a hopelessly lost millennial, a daughter, a sister – the list goes on. But when thinking a bit more deeply about “who am I?”, beyond merely the roles which I play and use to define myself, things become less crystallised.
One of the few benefits of being shuttered inside during lockdown, is that it’s given me, and many others, the opportunity to take time to think. In particular, the time to think about how this infringement on my freedom affects my self, that is, how it affects who I am. It is very rare that we find ourselves in the position of having our freedoms severely infringed upon in the Western world, barring a few exceptions of course. Yet in the current climate we have been thrown into a situation which demands our physical freedom be constrained.
French existential philosopher, Albert Camus (1913-1960) famously said that even when our bodies are imprisoned our minds remain completely free. Whilst he illustrated this sentiment through the incarceration of Meursault, following a sunlight-induced murder in The Stranger, it is something we can see mirrored in the world around us today. More and more people are pursuing new hobbies or intellectual enterprises (one need only do a cursory search online to see the evidence) due to the constraints placed on them by social distancing and quarantine. From this we can plainly see that even when our bodies are limited, the mind lives on.
“How does this relate to who we are, though?” seems to be the next question. It might be an exaggeration to say that impeding freedoms impedes our self, and whilst it may not be a simple one-to-one relationship, there is indeed a relationship present.
Humans are, by nature, social animals. We thrive in groups and rely on others for development and flourishing. When this gets cut off, or an obstacle is placed in the way, our sociability is negatively impacted. Humans are in many ways dependent on other people. As children we are dependent for food, shelter, and emotional development. As adults, we’re dependent on others for emotional support, employment, and education. However, our dependency is not merely means-end related.
The actions of others directly relate to who we are as individuals. Our ability to attach to others is formed by our caregivers’ attachment to us; our values and interests are formed by the type of society we live in; our ability to explore new hobbies is dependent on someone having created that hobby for us to be able to engage in it. Who we are is inescapably linked to our experiences with, and perception of, others. The effects of impeded sociability caused by lockdown are already being seen by psychologists, with research showing that young people – individuals who are in the prime of their development – are at risk of developing, or worsening, mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. All of which amount to instability in their sense of self and personal identity.
The view that self-actualisation cannot be established without others seems like a contradiction in terms; but we exist in a pluriverse constituted by a diverse and dynamic social fabric all of which, in some manner, affects who we are and how we see ourselves. In a time where self-improvement is being pushed as the best way to be spending lockdown (another cursory search online will prove this), it’s important that we recognise that improvement of the self is not possible without others.
The philosopher Charles Taylor (1931-present) wrote that “recognition is a vital human need”; and this, when seen through the lens of lockdown and self-actualisation, is proving to be the case. Recognition has the quality of being dialectical, meaning that it involves a self and others – in order to be recognised one needs to be recognised by someone – and encompasses the quality of plurality in human nature.
For humans, simply existing by ourselves isn’t enough to have a “good life”, we have a vital need for others both practically (i.e. when taking up new hobbies or jobs) and mentally (i.e. for support and development). During such strange times, it seems more important than ever to shift our understanding of self-hood from something that can be effectively achieved in isolation, without involving others, to exploring channels of reciprocity and understanding with, and of, others.
Though we are largely dependent on others for constituting our self, we are not indistinguishable from them. We are not, after all, all the same person. As humans, we can distinguish ourselves passively through simply being different (physically, mentally, and so on) from others, but also actively through our actions and speech. Hannah Arendt’s (1906-1975) theory of action inThe Human Condition comes to mind. She claims that when we act, we not only preform that action but in doing so insert our selves into reality. So, whilst my actions may arise from the involvement of others in my life and their recognition, the action I undertake is nonetheless uniquely mine.
We, the unique part of the thing that makes us us, are formed not only by our relations with and dependency on others but through our particular responses to those relations and the actions we undertake. In lockdown this mechanism becomes skewed because we find ourselves in a position where we have limited access to others and therefore limited relations, responses, and actions, all of which lead to an impeded sense of self and agency.
In answer to my initial question of “who am I?”, then, I suppose the most accurate answer would be this:
I am indeed all the roles listed initially, but I am also the amalgamation of all the people with whom I have and haven’t come into contact. I am the books I have read, the society I live in, the difficulties of my friends, the sum of the experiences I haven’t experienced, and every action I have undertaken. And so are you.
About the Author
Clarissa Muller has an LLM in International Law and Human Rights and BA in Philosophy from the University of Kent. Her research interests include phenomenology, personal and social identity, universality and human rights, and political theory.