Who I Am Is Where I’m Not

The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.

By Anna Prisco

We often escape in order to learn more about ourselves. We go to college out-of-state, radically pivot our careers, and pack up and move to a new country with the goal of finding ourselves.

Unfortunately, we leave the discussion there. But what does it mean to find oneself? I argue that it is a highly philosophical process, highlighting our discontent with a world with tight ties between circumstance and value.

My goal is to understand this process—personal escape in search of identity—as a philosophical topic.

I: How do we attribute personal qualities?

The way that we think obligates us to define ourselves with respect to others. If someone runs into a burning building to save a child, we say she is brave. How could she not be? She risked her life to save another. But if every person would do the same, we wouldn’t call our heroine brave.

If you are hesitant to accept this claim, perhaps thinking more generally about our use of descriptors will help. We use descriptions and character traits to explain how a person falls on a spectrum, not to name objective characteristics about said person. I would argue that for most of us, when we call our friend kind, we say that she is kinder than most people we know, not that she possesses an innate kindness.

Following from this, to truly know oneself means knowing where we fall on that spectrum. I am brave if I see more characteristics we call “brave” in myself than in others, and cowardly if I see less of those traits.

II. Why am I like this?

We seem to be thrown into our circumstances by accidents of circumstance, timing, and the cosmos, and removed from them in similar manners. We are the people that we are as a result of those same circumstances. There is a potential universe, X, in which I, Anna^X, am a world-class recorder player.  Yet in the universe from which I write, I was kindly asked by a high-school band director to not play in the concert for the good of all those listening. Perhaps the only difference in these two worlds was an inspiring movie I might have watched in my childhood, or a particularly good mentor. This thought is a frustrating one—surely in the world in which I am a world-class recorder player, I have achieved at least some of that because of who I am as a person. But how much? And can I ever know? It seems as if I can’t have a strong sense of personal identity without that knowledge.

So far, we have seen that (1) the way we view people (and consequently ourselves) is dependent on the society from which we come, and (2) that some of the traits or accomplishments that best come to characterize ourselves may not link back to any inherent us-ness.

III: What does this mean about me?

That doesn’t leave us with much—if we have neither a strong sense of our innate value or how that value is determined, we don’t have much to speak of ourselves. So before we try to make too much sense of our situation, perhaps we should take it as an opportunity to define our goals.

What should we expect from personal identity? Perhaps selfishly, I want an answer that says more that I am physically or psychologically continuous with the person that was born in 1999. I want to know what makes me me in a meaningful, quality-driven sense. Our drive for personal identity is a drive for personal distinction—when we say, “Who am I?” we say, “What makes me different?” or “Why is it so that I am not interchangeable with a person who looks the same as I do?”

IV: Escape as a means of understanding personal identity

The existential discontent we’ve covered so far is overwhelming. We as a species tend to place quite a bit of stock in who we are as people, and the thought that such is beyond our reach is highly frustrating.

We escape to swap out our lens. If we believe that we are influenced both in the paths we take and the value judgments we adhere to by our circumstances, perhaps stripping those circumstances away can separate their effects from a sense of identity.

When we ‘escape’ or move into new circumstances we remain the same subject, but seen in a different light. If you were brave before, are you still brave in an environment that forces you to view your values differently? If I was a world-class recorder player before, would I have the same passion if nobody was pressuring me to play?

Imagine viewing a photo of a sculpture. You have a sense for the value and the artistry, but your access is limited. It’s a three dimensional work of art, and you’re only seeing it from one angle! Now imagine someone slides you a photo of the sculpture from a different angle. Your thoughts about the art are now radically different—your added perspective has heightened your understanding. Such is the case with personal identity. While another lens may not give you the 360° view, escape serves as a mechanism to separate your from your circumstance, to distinguish “Who am I?” from “What has happened to me?”

We escape to separate our personal identity from our circumstances—and perhaps after we do so we can say that we build ourselves upon the foundation that has set up our lives.

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