Humans are complex creatures: all, more or less, the same and yet so decidedly different from one another. To some, difference is a source of interest and excitement whilst, for others, it is a source of great fear. Something we all share, however, is a continuous niggle, a constant twitching to know the answer to one, simple question: what am I?
Be it the hunt for love and purpose or the ladder to vocational success, every life is a journey and, for many, it is a long, winding road to becoming something. From an early age, we learn to plan for the future – to decide what we are to become and know exactly how to get there. Surely this detracts from the true excitement of life? Everyone knows that starting with the last page of the book destroys the thrill of getting there. In fact, knowledge of how the story ends often prevents us from reading the book at all. Yet still, we yearn to know what we are before we have even started to become it.
Some of the most perfect, seemingly planned moments in our lives are not planned at all. A strike of fate or a paintbrush in God’s mighty hand: whatever our beliefs, we must accept that some things are decided for us. No matter what we wish to call ourselves, so many external factors affect our lives that to even begin to contemplate what we are is an absurd challenge, too big for the human mind to compute. And, of course, the ultimate thing we shall all become is dead. Should we engage ourselves too far in the question of what we are, we might just be faced with the temporary nature of existence. There are few things more likely to put us off living than the stark reminder that we are running out of time in which to do it.
As such, to know what we are is not only a nonsensical notion but a harmful one. Constantly questioning our role in the world is a way of leaping forward that leads us to forget to respect the person we have been, all that we have learnt, felt and experienced. It is progress, not our name, by which we should measure ourselves. So why are we so desperate to know what we are?
The truth is, humans are scared – petrified, even – of themselves. The titles we bestow upon ourselves are not labels, but explanations: explanations to curb the fear that we may not be enough. It is this inherent dread that leads so many of us to never truly be anything. We take on considerably more than we are able to manage yet still, we seek to be more. In doing so, we have neither the time, energy nor thought left to truly commit to being anything. We wish to be friends, lovers and parents, all whilst being managers, hobbyists and pillars of the community. We insist that we can take on more whilst trying to magic seconds into existence to allow us the time for the responsibilities we have got. No matter how much we love things as they are, nothing is ever really enough.
What so many seem to forget is, no matter where we go, what we do or with whom, the only person we will always have to answer to is ourself. For all the time we spend attaining everyone else’s standards – getting the grade, hitting the monthly targets or bettering our parents’ expectations – we fail to achieve happiness. This is a sad but inevitable fact of life. We will never be good enough for the world. There will always be someone faster or smarter or more willing to suck up to the boss, just as there will always be mums who seem to have it more together or volunteers with more time and skill to offer a suffering world. It is, therefore, little wonder that we seek to define ourselves with labels and categories for, how else could we justify ourselves?
But no label could ever wholly encompass all that we are. A job title does not describe the passion with which we do the work, any more than a familial title encompasses the extent of the love we share. We are all so much more than our names, yet we feel so, very small without them. Labels are explanations of ourselves, used only for the sake of others. So what, then, should we be giving to ourselves?
The best answer to this question is, of course, love. It is one of the greatest catastrophes of the modern world that to love oneself is criminal. With love comes forgiveness and, with that, acceptance. We change so greatly from day-to-day, as experience paints our thoughts into new shades of rainbow, that we barely have time to get to know ourselves. What use is a label for a neighbour if we do not even know what is within us?
Not one of us knows where we are going or what we will be once we get there. All that we can really be sure of is the continuous learning and growth happening within us each day and the fact that, whatever we are, we are always enough. We obsess over categories but, really, what use are they to anyone? The process of ‘becoming’ is always far more meaningful than finding out what we are today. Ultimately, we all fall into the same category of merely ‘human’: nothing more, nothing less.