The Heart of Our Self: What Makes Us
It’s a common perception that our thoughts make us who we are. I believe that we are a lot more that that. The idea that we are our thoughts is a seductive one. We can often know other people by the thoughts that they have had; through their writings and their spoken word. It’s a skill we practice as well – we train ourselves to communicate clearly through our words in the hope that someone else will understand our thoughts. And if thinking is how you can know and understand another person, then surely it is how we can know and perhaps understand ourselves. But is it really what makes us us? Or is something else the core of our personality? Ultimately, what makes us who we are?
What makes us us – our thinking is generic
However, if you think about this further, there can often be something rather generic about our thinking. If someone else writes something complex and I take the time to understand what he has written, then in some way I might begin to have some of the same thoughts as he has had, if only in outline. There will no doubt be differences, but if his thinking is structured and logical, and my thinking is structured and also logical, then perhaps our thoughts are similar.
The difficulty with this, of course, is that I have not become him through having had the same thoughts as him, nor have I created a copy of him in my mind. If we asked the person who wrote the words I was thinking about, he would no doubt say that he was much more than his book. So for me, although we can get better at thinking, the things we think can’t be all there is to the question ‘what makes us who we are?'
So if it isn’t thinking, then is it feeling that defines us? There are ways to feel more and the things we feel and the way that emotions affect us can be very powerful and can feel utterly unique. If we are feeling something very strongly, if we are overwhelmed by sadness and grief it can sometimes blind us to the idea that other people feel anything at all. We might even believe ourselves to be the only people feeling what we are feeling, and that there has never been another person that feels what we feel.
However, again, if we read poetry and the emotional writings of another, or if we sit and listen to another person in distress, we know them to be experiencing feeling and we may feel some of what they feel – we can sometimes share in their feelings. And yet we don’t become that other person.
Another candidate for the centre of identity is our bodies. Surely, we must be who we are because of the body that we have. Our body is there day in and day out, a constant. It is more than the container that holds who we are; all we need to do is prick our leg with a pin to know that our body is more than an object we own. To some extent our body truly is us. And yet it isn’t enough on its own to fully define us. When we think what makes us who we are, the body is part of the answer, surely.
We are multi-dimensional
In the final analysis, no one-dimensional way of looking at ourselves truly encapsulates who we are. What makes us us is complex. We are made up of a dynamic combination of things, always changing. These parts interact with the other parts of us to create the whole rich, complex person.
The way our thoughts interact with our feelings, the way our feelings seem to be embedded in our bodies, and the way that our bodies seem to so often be the subject of our thoughts leads me to conclude that the only thing that makes sense is that we are an ongoing swirl of shifting parts – and yet, paradoxically, we remain the same person.
I'd be interested in what you think. Now, read about why change is so hard.
– Tim Hill