For a variety of reasons, the concept of personal identity is one of the most thought-provoking in human history. Any conscious individual can relate to the topic considering they have undoubtedly gone through the same struggle themselves trying to forge an identity separate from that of others. The questions “Who am I?” or “What makes me unique from everyone else?” may seem trivial or mundane to us because we, without truly thinking about the implications of the questions, would simply point to several positive characteristics; such as our ingenuity, or sense of humour, or quirkiness that we consider to manifest within us. While ignoring the obvious self-satisfying nature of these assertions, we also ignore the fact that many other human-beings share the same traits to varying degrees, and its more than likely that others before you have considered these same characteristics as innately essential to their own being. As much as many of us erroneously wish, our seemingly unique set of traits do not make us the one in a million character we all seem to strive to be.
Putting this aside, we as individuals also ignore the amount to which we are shaped and formed by our environment and our experiences with our family, peers, acquaintances and enemies. In my own experience at least, I feel that most of my identity, if not all, comes from other individuals and their own respective identities which have been formed similarly in context to others. Very few people would claim to be the exact same person they were in middle-school, high-school or even last month for that matter; they in fact are probably starkly different from their former selves. You may have guessed it by now, but this is largely going to be a ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument and I’m going to point out that in my personal experience, nature has had very little to say.
Therefore, it would be immeasurably more valuable to define ourselves in context to the concepts of “the self” and “the others” whom we’ve come into contact with; considering how hard it is to distinguish yourself as a distinct or separate entity. As human beings, it is practically impossible to shrug off the various influences we face on a daily basis, they undeniably shape our consciousness and to a larger extent our identity. One could go as far to say that we’re more an amalgamation of the impressions that others have made on us than anything individually exclusive. If there is one indisputable truth it is the fact that we as humans are incredibly social beings, and when you try to gather an understanding of who you are with several petty attributes, you undermine one of the few essential truths we can count on.
Another thing we often ignore is the amount to which others impart with us our supply of specific traits that we consider to be innate. Looking back on my own past, I have distinct memories of my grandmother and others saying things along the lines of “you’re so smart” or “he’s such a nice boy,” and perhaps to my own chagrin, I and many others grew up with inflated egos and many conceptions about my own self that I never questioned until well into my teens. In addition to these characteristics, many others take hold with a need to feel different or in opposition to other individuals we encounter for better or for worse . Often taking seed in childhood, we feel the need to separate ourselves from our parents. Phrases like “I am not my father” explains this mindset well. Images may come to mind at this point of a younger self sulking saying something analogous to, “I’m never going to act like that when I’m a parent”. This act and others alike did more to shape us than any unique trait that we were born with. This and other revelations I’ve explored leads me to assume that as child we are as close to a “blank slate” as it gets.
Many readers after that last line are probably cringing. I assume because they think that I’m expressing some empty cliché saying like “we are all born the same”, but that is certainly not the case. We are all born with what I would argue are not “traits” but instead what I would call “conditions”. We were all blessed with varying levels of intellect, certain looks and to some extent some sub-conscious values. These values, however, will never escape the magnifying glass of the psychologist within all of us, because we will always be suspicious of anything considered to be intangible, since we can never truly know where each characteristic took form and which, if any at all, we were born with. However, that’s not to say that we’re not individually unique, considering the unlikelihood that another individual has been effected by others in the same way and with the same outcome as you. So maybe we all are truly as unique as we strive to be, there’s just more value in distinguishing where certain parts of us come from rather than crediting ourselves as the sole inventor of the person we are today.