How does one define oneself?

Does Jeremy define himself as a car salesman? When Mac thinks of himself, does he think of himself as a teacher? Does Pam think of herself as a doctor? Dave as a lawyer? Jenn as a mother? Craig as an architect?

Do we define ourselves only by what it is we do to make money?

I’m reading the Hitler book again. I need to have it finished for book group on Sunday, but I keep getting sidetracked by thought experiments.

For example, the author — Ron Rosenbaum — goes to great lengths to try to define Hitler, as if defining him would somehow explain what he did. Was Hitler a mountebank? Or was he utterly sincere in his evil? Was he natural or was he unnatural? Was he human or was he something else? Rosenbaum’s attempts to define Hitler made me wonder: how do I define myself?

We went over to Jeremy and Jennifer’s for dinner the other night. At some point, I said something (which I can no longer remember) that made Kris smile at my thought process. In my defense I said, “But I’m a writer.” As if that explained why I thought as I did. And that’s the first time I can recall actually defining myself as a writer.

Later, thinking about it, I realized that I do think of myself as a writer now. I’m not a boxmaker or a computer programmer or anything else.

I am a writer.

But what does that mean?

And what, then, is Dana? What is Andrew? What is Tammy? What is Joel?

Is dowingba a dishwasher? Or is he a musician?

Are we defined by the work we do? By the hobbies we keep? By our personalities? What is it that makes up the one-word (or few-word) definition of our lives?

How does one define oneself?


On 19 March 2004 (11:27 PM),
dowingba said:

I think it’s how we think of ourselves. I don’t think of myself as “a dishwasher”. I totally think of myself as “a musician” though, even though I make no money doing it. I don’t think of myself as “a writer”, even though I write almost every day, and have even produced a novel before.

It might be more clear cut for me than for you, though. I mean, I’m obsessed with music. There is nothing I like more than music. Not even close.

On 20 March 2004 (08:29 AM),
Dana said:

As you might imagine, I’ve thought a lot about this, too.

I’ll tell you how I define myself. I’m a person — a person who does various things, like programs computers, sees movies, plays RPGs, and stuff like that.

I define myself as a female person, even though my tackle currently says differently, and my chromosomes will always say differently.

Words like ‘writer’, ‘musician’, and ‘dishwasher’ are descriptions of activities that are undertaken by people. Saying ‘I’m a writer’ is saying ‘I’m a person who writes’. The ‘person’ is always there as an unstated assumption.

And I think it’s important to define oneself in terms of what one is as a person — what we think, feel, and believe — as opposed to what one does as a person — writing, playing music, washing dishes.

The activites are important, but the qualities are more important, I think.

On 20 March 2004 (09:45 AM),
Tammy said:

Defining oneself as a person is not defining oneself. To define oneself as a female or male person is not defining oneself. Nature defined that at birth.

In my opinion, (I insert that for Dana’s benefit)I think we define ourselves by our passions. Jd, I have had similar experiences where I have said something off the wall and everybody looks at me like I’m from Mars. My only explanation for my strange train of thought is because I’m a writer. I’ve had to explain that to people many times before. Writers think differently than others. They view the world differently. I had to explain this to my neighbor lady just yesterday and now I can’t remember what I said! But she gave me a funny look. I answered the same as you did, “I’m a writer.”

Unlike you, JD, I have thought of myself as a writer for years. Having my first story published at ten years old in a Sunday School paper has forever marked me as a writer, in my own little mind. I had a school teacher in the 4rth and fifth grade who saw great potential in me and really thought I would grow to publish a book someday. I saw that teacher again several years ago for the first time since 1969. One of the first things she asked me was if I had written any books yet. She had not forgotten.

I love to garden and bake but I don’t define myself by those things. I define myself first as a mother than as a writer. Hmmm, I mever really define myself as a wife. Not sure why that is. Maybe I need to look into that.

On 20 March 2004 (12:33 PM),
Van said:

A difficult question. The amazing thing is sometimes how little we even know about ourselves. I remember on the wall of my 2nd grade classroom was a poster defining the essential question of personal identity:
“you are what you eat”

Although that lacks dazzling philosophical significance and could not appear on a doctoral thesis, it has a wonderful simple truth to it that transcends time. My answer then is:

“I am a Quizno’s sandwich” (Chicken Carbonara on Rosemary Parmesan Bread, to be more precise).

On 20 March 2004 (01:28 PM),
Dana said:

Tammy: Defining oneself as a person is not defining oneself.

But it is, Tammy.

When someone says they are a writer, a wife, or a mother, you are ‘subdividing’ the larger category of people. You are saying that you are a person that fits categories X, Y, and Z. But in the case you (and JD) are discussing, X, Y, and Z are all activities.

I prefer to define myself as a Person who has a set of Qualities — I believe X, I think Y, I feel Z — instead of a set of activities.

It’s just a different way to categorize things. I find it more useful.

I know lots of computer programmers. But they’re all very different from one another. So saying ‘I’m a programmer’ isn’t a very useful subdivision for me. Likewise, I know several people who define themselves as scientists, or writers. Again, lots of differences between them.

But I find a lot of similarity between all the kind people I know. So I find it more useful to talk about a person falling into the ‘Kind’ category than into the ‘Writing’ category.


This is just me, of course. Since I find those categories helpful, it’s how I also define myself.

I’m a person. I read a lot. I (think) I’m humble and diplomatic. I’m fairly technical. I try to be fair minded — I believe in fair mindedness and equality. I believe in kindness, compassion, and empathy. I think logic and science are useful and fun. I have a droll sense of humor.

I think those kinds of categories are more useful than ‘I’m a writer’. I’d rather know why you or JD write than know that you do.

On 20 March 2004 (01:51 PM),
Tammy said:

I’m a person is ridiculous. If you weren’t a person there would be nothing to define. There’s no point in mentioning it. No one ever doubts that some one is a person. How can that define you. The only way it defines is to seperate you from a plant or an animal.

And to say your humble? How do I say this as nicely as I can? Let’s just say that I don’t see humility as being a strong point of yours. In fact, I see it just the opposite. Have you ever heard the saying that when you start talking about how humble you are that it’s a sure sign you’re not? Now Dana, I like you and all and I know I’m always clashing with you but I just want to say that I mean no offense by what I just said. Kudos to all.

On 20 March 2004 (02:50 PM),
Dana said:

No one ever doubts that some one is a person.

I think we take it for granted, and I think it’s useful to acknowledge that, fundamentally, we’re all the same. All of us.

And to say your humble? How do I say this as nicely as I can? Let’s just say that I don’t see humility as being a strong point of yours. In fact, I see it just the opposite.

Well, to be fair, I said I think I’m humble. Not the same thing.

Am I humble? I don’t really know. I suppose a better way to put it is that I value and aspire to humility.

I am not a great person. I’m not sure I’m a particularly good or even ‘average’ person. I’m certainly not any better than anybody else I know.

I haven’t done anything significant, and I doubt I ever will. My impact on the grand scheme of things is likely to be minimal if not completely inconsequential. My skills and abilities are eclipsed by many other people’s. I’m not uniquely good at anything, nor even particularly expert. Frankly, I consider that I’ve failed at every thing of any consequence that I’ve ever tried. What success I’ve had I largely attribute to luck and the help of others.

The thing I’m most proud of in life is having helped a friend out of debt and depression.

I try to be as good as possible to my friends, and I try to be kind to people I don’t know, too. I try to stand up for principles that I believe in, and understand the principles of others that disagree with me. I try not to judge others harshly, and I try to treat them with respect and kindness whatever I feel towards them or their beliefs.

Am I humble? Probably not, but I try. Am I a miserable excuse for a human being? I certainly hope not, but it’s also entirely possible.

On 20 March 2004 (03:47 PM),
Tammy said:

Well I wasn’t trying to imply that you were a miserable excuse of a human being. Goodness no. And thats one thing about having kids; a persons impact goes on and on long after death, in fact it goes on till the end of time.

On 21 March 2004 (10:25 AM),
jenefer said:

Perhaps Dana’s point is that she spends time thinking about her humanity and all that implies, before thinking about labels for her activities. I think Dana is a much more philosophical person than most of us, just as I feel about jd. I love reading this site and expanding my thought processes almost every day. Too bad I type so slowly and don’t have hours and hours for discourse.

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