Monday, November 16, 2009

Philosophy of Identity and Daily Living

This is something I once wrote up for my wife, in response to a particular situation she was dealing with. Though it was specific to that time, I think it's a pretty good representation of my general philosophy.

Daily Philosophy

  • My well-being is important
  • It is fair to share the load
  • I don't do my part well when:
    • I'm sick
    • I'm tired
    • I'm stressed out
    • I haven't addressed my daily needs (physical, social, mental, etc)
  • When I don't do my part well, my family suffers
  • If I don't address my daily needs, I can't do my part well
  • If I'm not happy, I can't do my part well
  • I'm not happy when:
    • I haven't addressed my daily needs
    • I have to hide myself instead of being myself
    • I'm living in a hostile environment
      • Not enough acceptance of who I really am
      • Not enough security
      • Too much work / too little rest
  • If I'm not happy then my family suffers, and so do I
  • When I'm not happy I can become happy by:
    • Addressing my daily needs
    • Being myself with someone who accepts me
    • Getting help with the hostile environment (help with work, listening to me talk about myself, etc)

Philosophy of Identity

  • My identity is permanent and unchangeable
    • I am the same me that I was as a child, and will be when I am old
  • My identity cannot be seen directly by anyone but me
    • I can choose to reveal myself or hide myself at will
    • Even when I reveal myself, others might not be able to see me
      • This is their limitation, not mine
  • My identity is divine
    • My identity is love
    • I know myself, because I know that I love
  • My actions are not part of my identity
  • My body is not part of my identity
  • My brain is part of my body, and is not part of my identity
  • My knowledge is not part of my identity
  • My skills are not part of my identity
  • My past is not part of my identity
  • My mistakes are not part of my identity
  • My accomplishments are not part of my identity
  • Other people's opinions are not part of my identity
  • What other people do to me does not change my identity
    • It can hurt me and make me want to hide, but I am still me no matter what
  • Other people often don't know who I am
  • Even people who know me well don't know everything about me
  • Some people say they love me, but I know that some of them don't really know who I am
  • Some people say they love me, but I know that they don't know themselves well, and don't really understand what love is
  • Some people say they love me, and they really do, but they only love the little part of me that I have shown to them
  • Some people say they love me, and I know that they do, but I don't know why they know who I am, because I never told them. But they just seem to know.
  • Some people who are close to me should love me, but don't have much love to give. When I think about it I might feel hurt, but I might also see that they are afraid and don't know much about their own identity.


  1. Interesting!

    How do you use this practically (if at all)? Is this something you reflect on when you hit a rough patch or what?

    The identity part reminded me a lot of Wayne Dyer's philosophy. I'm wondering if you are familiar with his views.

    I think my philosophy would be different in a few significant ways, but I don't take issue with any of the points individually. I might try drafting something like this myself.

  2. I'm not familiar with Wayne Dyer, but I do have to admit that my list sounds very self-helpy. That's not the way that I think of it at all...

    How do I use it practically? I think my wife is wondering the same thing, but to me it seems so obvious I didn't even consider that it would need explanation. The daily philosophy part is pretty straightforward: there are things you have to take care of every day to be healthy and happy and effective. Around our house when someone is feeling depressed we tend to ask, "what is it that you're putting off doing?" Obnoxious? Highly! But usually very much to the point. For some reason it's almost always true that doing the thing that you don't want to do cheers you up. And I think it's more than just because now it's out of the way (though that's a lot of it).

    My philosophy of identity is very personal to me, even though it sounds like it came out of a book from Barnes and Noble's sale table. For me, I walk around with such a profound sense of my own identity that the main application is in understanding other people, and remembering that they have the same light hidden somewhere under their bushel. But I do think that a lot of people have wrong ideas about identity. I think that it is really common to think that identity is about characteristics (smart, good-looking, generous, accomplished, whatever). But of course it can't be, because characteristics can change or be lost, but the self persists (at least, that's what I believe).

  3. The self persists, but the size and shape of the bushel change. Right?

  4. Honey, I don't know what that means, but this is a family blog.

  5. Oh, my mistake. :P

    "the main application is in understanding other people, and remembering that they have the same light hidden somewhere under their bushel."


    "the self persists," despite the above.

  6. I particularly enjoyed the identity philosophy. It just feels true. I especially appreciate the perspective it gives regarding the fact that I am the only individual who really knows my full identity, and that even when I try to show that I may be misunderstood, and that's not my fault.

    Thanks for sharing that.

  7. I thought about this more today and I am skeptical that it is possible to know oneself. There are obvious things that prevent people from knowing others perfectly (like not being able to read thoughts) and proven biases like fundamental attribution error, but there are even biases in understanding oneself -- to name just one example, when people do a favor for someone, they tell themselves they must really like that person, and so the amount they report liking the person jumps tremendously just by virtue of doing a favor for them.

    That is just one small example but I am curious to hear your thoughts on the statement that people might not be able to have a clear picture of their own identity.

  8. Justin,

    I would definitely have to agree that there are many barriers to knowing oneself, and that many people don't in fact know themselves. There was a time when I was nearly a complete stranger in my own skin, and that experience was part of what compelled me to do the introspection that led to my beliefs about identity.

    But do you think that there are barriers to self knowledge that simply cannot be overcome?Bias is a problem, and it sneaks in continually, but it's a problem in all efforts to understand (science, etc.), and there are ways to deal with it.

    You strike me as a person who is both introspective, and honest with yourself. I'll bet that you don't usually have too much trouble knowing what your own motives are (though some people do). But the example you use runs deeper than that and can't be reliably overcome just with honest introspection. However, it can also be interpreted in a different way. Under my understanding of identity, it is completely consistent that doing something for someone else encourages your own positive feelings toward that person, because we are wired to love, and particularly to love other people. Performing an act of kindness stimulates that circuitry. So, I don't think it's as if one is being fooled by these irrational feelings, and just 'telling' oneself that one likes the other person more. Instead I think that giving expression to one's own true identity, by giving and sharing with another person, just reveals that identity to oneself.

    We're suspicious of our own feelings (e.g. an enormous jump in liking) because we fear being taken advantage of and hurt. But we can't help who we are. We just naturally respond to other true selves when we encounter them, and want to share and be who we are.

  9. I like this: it makes sense to me and I relate and agree with most of it. I would add that God is the only other entity who really knows who we are, and sometimes we have to connect to spirituality to better understand who we are. "Through a glass darkly" is the expression that fits for me, as I have great self-awareness in some areas, and a very limited understanding in others. By spirituality, I generally don't mean religion (though I quite like religion), but connecting with the elemental aspects of ourselves to view them as they truly are (or to see them through our creator's eyes). I agree that our personal traits exist regardless of the external, but our ability to thrive can be dependent on our reaction to the external, which can impact our growth. But who we are is unchanging in the broad sense.


  10. Robert, a new example from a post today:


    I would argue that there are barriers to self knowledge that cannot be overcome. Related to the bias I mentioned previously is that people are much more likely to be attracted to someone because of completely unrelated physiological events. A famous experiment showed that people crossing a shaky rope bridge are much more likely to be attracted to people they encounter because they interpret their increased their physiological reaction to the shaky rope bridge as being attracted to the person in front of them. And this is a lasting effect.

    Another point is the idea of identity being something fixed, unchanging with time. I have a hard time coming up with an example of a trait that could not be changed by external factors. In that sense, I do not see identity as one true thing that can be found, but something shaped largely by external reality and that is changing all the time.

    I realize that is a kind of a cynical physicalist view, but it makes the most sense to me. This is probably in part because I do not feel I understand myself or my own thoughts and opinions very well. For example, I might think something in my head but then I write it out and analyze it and come to the opposite conclusion. When asked why I feel a certain way, I usually do not have a good answer -- it is like I fail to see the logic underlying my subconscious beliefs. Maybe this underlying knowledge is knowable, but at least for me it requires tons of digging to even come close, and even then I can't be sure the logic I've found is the same that is underlying my subconscious beliefs. Maybe these are just beliefs and distinct from identity, but for fear of rambling, I will end this comment here.

  11. In response to Justin--"Another point is the idea of identity being something fixed, unchanging with time. I have a hard time coming up with an example of a trait that could not be changed by external factors."

    I agree that most traits can be changed by external factors. Even so, in my experience those traits are superficial to a deeper underlying identity. I spent many years engaging in deep introspection and intentional characterological change in order to overcome traits that I developed living in an abusive environment. I pursued these actions because I firmly believed that a core identity existed underneath my environmental adaptations and that if I changed those adaptations I would be able to express more of my core identity. I felt like the endeavor was fairly successful.

    It's difficult to describe that core identity, but I would be willing to call it love as Robert does above -- maybe a multifaceted love.

  12. Sarah,

    You've said so well something that I've been struggling to say. Thank you!


    I am so delighted with the quality of the thinking that each you have been bringing with your comments! It is truly a great pleasure to be having dialog with you.

    If you have a blog or a webpage, please post a link. I'd like to have the chance to get to know more about the interesting and intelligent people who've graced my blog with their comments.

  13. Justin,

    I think I saw something just like the Cheap Talk post you linked to on Scott Adams blog. And as I recall it took me in. I'm not sure what that says about me...

    I can't top Sarah's response, so I'm not going to try. I will concede the difficulty of knowing oneself, but I'm not persuaded that it's impossible. I also can't PROVE the immutability of identity, so I'll get around it by saying that I define the personal identity as the immutable part of the self.

  14. Jared,

    I think I understand very well what you're saying. The closest thing I've experienced to knowing God is recognizing beauty and divinity in myself and in other people.

    And what you say about our relationship with the external is exactly right. What I hope (and believe) is that the identity never is lost, even through pain and suffering and an unwillingness to drink the bitter cup.

  15. Justin,

    I wanted to add: Your account of your efforts to understand yourself and your feelings is... unbelievably familiar to me. It's still like that for me, but I guess I've gotten used to it, it doesn't worry me.

    I guess part of the reason that my philosophy of identity is so important to me is because it gives me a point of reference from which to understand my self. E.g., I don't worry as much about the changeable parts of myself.

  16. ---Bob writes:

    Robert, I tried to post this as a comment on your blog. For whatever reason, the little editor box was terribly unfriendly to me. So I'm emailing to you instead. --Bob

    Hey, Robert! I love what you've done here, mostly because you're digging deep, exploring who you are, and articulating it to others. Strangers, even.

    While I have a different take on some of the items you listed, as usual I think we end up in a very similar place. In particular, I'm right there with you on the notion that we are, at our cores, essentially love. I think love of oneself is tragically absent (even discouraged) in our society, and I think that so many things are impossible without it. I don't think we can fully love another until and unless we truly love ourselves. It's like the oxygen mask thing on planes - you're useless in caring for someone else until you've taken care of yourself. I see this being love and loving yourself reflected well in your philosophy of daily living.

    I have a question, too. Is your Identity list intended to define Identity or just describe those attributes that are and are not comprised by Identity? If it's the latter, then is there an assumed definition underlying your list?

    Again, this is a beautiful piece of work. Thank you for sharing it.

    ---I responded to Bob with:


    Mind if I add this to the comments myself? Sorry they were acting up.

    Thank you for your kind comments. I think you're right about the missing love of oneself in society. It's an infectious disease that parents pass to children, and that can be communicated to strangers by crime and violence.

    To answer your question, when I wrote the list I didn't feel like I had a good enough grasp of the concept to fully verbalize it, so I just intended the list to be descriptive and to try to narrow the definition down a bit. There is an assumed underlying definition but I'm still not sure that I can verbalize it effectively. It's something like this: my identity is the part of myself that loves and fears (where love and fear are the same thing but with opposite sign). Everything else is auxiliary to my self, to my identity. My self grows as it learns to love more and fear less.

    ---Bob replied:

    Hi, Robert.

    By all means, feel free to add these to the comments.

    The additional item that had occurred to me but didn't make it into those comments was this:

    It is my experience (of myself and others) that people who do not love themselves well and/or do not take care of themselves are more difficult to love fully. I think the reason for this is twofold, the first being that those folks are, in effect, putting their problems on you. To love them means to take on their problems that they're not willing to take on themselves. Who's excited about that? The second is that, if a person isn't taking care of his health or is engaging in self-destructive behavior (no matter how small or slow-acting), then the likelihood that we will one day lose that person is higher than if he loved and cared for himself. I think it's difficult for any of us to invest ourselves fully in someone or something that isn't as invested in him/herself, whether we're conscious of it or not.

    So, in addition to the admiration that we feel for and the inspiration that we get from loving people who are genuinely committed to growing and caring for themselves as spiritual/physical/rational/emotional beings, I think our brains are more likely to "invest" in them, too, because they are less risky on those two fronts.

    Yeah, we've got to find more things to disagree about. Damn.

    Take good care.

  17. Interesting points by all! Justin's comment about the experiment with the shaky bridge makes me want to test that out. However, beliefs or decisions clouded by emotion (and physiology) are not necessarily truths, and can be recognized and discarded. In my mind, beliefs are separate from identity, as are emotions, feelings, thoughts, perspectives, preferences, etc. These are elements that characterize how we interact with and relate to the external, but they are not who we are. We do, however, frequently cling to these things to create an “identity”, but they don’t form our true identity. Beliefs, emotions, thoughts, feelings, actions all change. But the core elements that make up our identity (and are the components that make us of value as human beings) are unchanging and eternal. Which begs the question, if beliefs and thoughts are not part of who we are, how can we know ourselves? And how will we know when we do know ourselves? When I best know myself, I am feeling rather then thinking, but it isn't a “feeling” in the normal definition of the word (happy, sad, etc.). It is more of an intuitive sensing of what is at my core: a meditative reflection that provides a view of my unique identity and allows me to see myself as I truly am, stripped of those changing attributes I may cling to, but exposed to the fundamental truths that are at my core. For me, it can be like sitting in a dark room and touching an object until the outline takes shape in my mind and I slowly realize what it is without the bias, presumptions and prejudice I might cast upon the object if I simply gazed at it briefly (and likely disregarded it) in normal light. When I best understand and relate to other people, it is in the same manner. Rather than letting their thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires, cloud my perception of them, if I quietly sense their core elements, I can better understand their identity. But it is hard to do, and many are obscured by the ephemera they have gathered around them. I don’t believe you can think your way into self-knowledge, but you can sense your way there.


  18. Jared,

    I think I agree with all of that, with one caveat: maybe you can't 'think your way into self-knowledge', but thinking is part of the process. You have to cogitate a bit to decide how you understand what you feel.