The Question is a Serpent

Dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life

I ask myself the question over and over and over and over, hoping to one day find an answer: “Who am I, under the veneer?” It hasn’t even been a month since I pondered the question, in writing here on my blog, once again.

Yet here I am, clanging my metal cup against the bars to get the attention of the guards in the hope they will release me from my cell. I should know better. I was given a life sentence. The answer to my question, if one exists, is not out there, beyond the prison walls. It is buried beneath the veneer. To find the answer, I need only to strip away the veneer, layer by layer.

Based on comments I’ve received about my question, I gather it is difficult for others to understand. But it may be me; my explanation may be inadequate or confusing. I’ll admit, the concept is a bit abstract. “If I could rid my personality of all the consequences of socialization, training, environmental influences, etc., etc., etc., what would the remaining “pure” personality be like?” A raft of other questions flow from that one: what would I believe? How would I treat other people? How would I treat myself? Would I be compassionate? Would I have empathy? I could go on and on and on.

Some people may understand my question, but some of them may think it’s a stupid one. Or they think it’s pointless to even think about it because they think it’s impossible to answer. But I don’t think it is impossible. It’s just extremely unlikely that I’ll ever find an answer. Even mining the depths of my brain by writing and thinking and probing and writing some more, I doubt I’ll ever get beyond a layer or two of those hard veneers wrapped around the real me that’s buried deep inside. Yet I keep trying. Either I’m persistent or I’m of unsound mind.

I remember attempting to engage someone in conversation about the question; someone I thought would at least have some inkling of what I’m looking to find. The response, though, suggested otherwise. It was, essentially, “Why bother? You are who you are. It’s a waste of energy.”  And maybe it is a waste of energy. But, for me, it’s a compelling waste of energy. I’d like to know, before I die, who I would have been had I not permitted myself to be molded and shaped by other people and by experiences that I allowed to sculpt me into someone other than who I was. I recognize that it’s an odd, abstruse query. It may be one unique to people who are pathologically introspective.

A writer friend with whom I have occasional conversations suggests the question is a manifestation of my belief that I am fundamentally not a good person; but that if I can dig deep enough I might find a kernel of decency. I hope she’s wrong. She’s not a psychologist, so her opinion is not that of an expert. But she makes a reasoned argument.

One of the triggers for my question, I think, goes back to my first job in association management. I went into the job as an extreme introvert but, because of the job requirements, when I finally left it six years later I was able to present myself as an extrovert. Thought I remained, and remain still, an introvert, I changed my behavior. And that change of behavior resulted not only in external changes but internal changes as well. I’m an introvert whose personality was altered in some way by the experience.

I’m sure similar changes have taken place in my head over the years, but I probably do not even recognize most of them.  I am certain similar adjustments to who I was/am took place before my first association job. As far back as early, early childhood. And the changes just kept on coming. My question, then, asks who I was before all those changes took place. Would I even recognize the person I was before I was altered by experience?

Perhaps I am destined to always pursue resolution to a problem for which there is no answer. And in that case, the suggestion that “you are who you are” and that it’s a waste of energy may be the best one. No matter, though. I’ll keep at it. If nothing else, it gives me something to think about and write about.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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