Are you having difficulty figuring out who you are ? Then take an inventory of your friends.

November 5, 2007 | By | Reply More

Periodically, I become a bit disoriented in the swirl of life, which gives rise to the question: “Who am I?” 

We aren’t static beings, of course.  We are complex adaptive systems, communities of relatively simple cellular life that number in the trillions.  Many of “our” cells (in fact, the great majority of them) don’t even have our DNA.  All of our cells are in constant motion, haunting us with the notion, raised many years ago by Heraclitus, that everything is in such flux that there is no stable version of “it” or “me.”  Everything that looks to be permanent is, according to his outlook, an illusion.

That the physical matter that constitutes us is so intricately linked by causality goes so far as to taunt our treasured notions of free thought and “free will.” Where, then, might one find some sort of stability during such existentially disoriented moments? 

Here’s how I approach the issue.  I take it as true that we are, indeed, complex adaptive systems (I’m not horrified by this idea as are some people—it just is).  I take it, then, that we are complex systems in motion and that it is thus impossible for us to maintain a stable ground of reference. 

This doesn’t mean that we can’t have meaningful connections with other people, however.  It just means that we move through time and space as a system of systems, as a knitted configuration of sentient beings who might eternally struggle to find a fixed meaning (if they don’t listen up!), but who can find stability in the geometry of their social frameworks.  “We the people” is a dependably stable entity, even though “I,” the individual, sometimes wobble about.  Richard Nisbett has much to say about the social context determining the individual.  Underlying his writings is the need to beware of the fundamental attribution error.

This eternal flux of the human condition, combined with the possibility of forming durable friendships, might lead to a solution of sorts (small “s”).  

Who are you?  Look around and notice the people who you consider to be your friends.  Take your closest 10 friends, or maybe your closest 50 if you’d like (but don’t pretend that you have more than 150 friends).  What do you see when you consider them as a group that has you in common?   Are they admirable?  Do they give you positive energy?  Does your group have sufficient diversity to stretch you and provoke you to be better at being you?   I’ve written before of the importance of close friends in their service as your private Greek chorus, your private advisory jury (see the comments here).  And each of you, of course, reciprocates by serving as a “mirror” for the benefit of your friends. 

I think of my approach as “social relativity.”  For me, there is no absolute and well-defined social state of rest; there is no privileged reference frame for determining who we are.  The trick is to generate a static frame of reference within a dynamic whole, never being fooled that one’s frame is more than a momentary placating heuristic.  What I’m suggesting is quite a tenuous form of stability, of course.  But maybe it’s all we’ve got.

Tonight is one of those nights when I am taking a breath from a happily tumultuous couple of weeks, in order to ask myself “Who am I?”   I am truly blessed with worthy friends (as blessed as any agnostic could be).   Over these past few weeks, I am glad that I have taken the time to reconnect with some of the people who have been important to me at various junctures during my curious journey through life.

So thank you, my friends, for helping me find my way back home tonight!


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Category: Friendships/relationships, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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