This is a question that recently confronted me from several angles at the same time, and so I think it's probably a good thing to look at.
There are three fundamental aspects to this, the first two of which we'll examine. The third is mainly out of our control.
How do you describe yourself to yourself? And perhaps more directly, How do you see yourself? Everything else pales compared to this. Self-estimation underlies not only what we do, but what we are. Even if you're able to push past your fundamental view of yourself, it will drag you back soon enough. I used to say, "Self-concept is destiny," and I don't think I was far off the mark.
How do you describe yourself to others? As I'll describe below, this one can be tricky, and it certainly has been for me. There are two root problems: First, no short description can do anything but savage the truth of who and what we are. Second, these descriptions induce status-centered thoughts, and status is a poison.
How do others see you? As noted above, this is mainly out of our control. We can react to such opinions, but that's hazardous too. If we're not very careful, we end up thinking as others expect of us.
One way this hit me recently was reading through the comments to an article I wrote on another site. The commenter saw my self-description as a "lifestyle capitalist," interpreted it radically differently than I intended, and went on to say, "Nonetheless, there are some interesting thoughts here."
And so I started thinking about changing or explaining this self-description.
I've always been uncomfortable describing myself. Even listing the things I've done makes me uneasy, for both reasons mentioned in #2 above. But the people I've worked with needed something to say about me… prospective readers would likely be confused without it.
In any event, "listing things done" has been bearable, but I left the description to others. And they dubbed me an "adventure capitalist." I have done business in some wild places and ways, and so I accepted that one and moved on.
But as time went on, it seemed like I was portraying myself as some uber-rich venture capitalist, which I am not. And so I looked for something better. As readers of the subscription newsletter will know, I arrived at "lifestyle capitalist" and described it this way:
Lifestyle capitalism is the practice of working for the sake of one's lifestyle, rather than working for secondary factors like income or position.
A lifestyle capitalist, by my definition, might be someone with a very low income, but apparently that's not how others see it… because of that status thing again. I saw lifestyle capitalism as "a path around the status obsession… a way of living apart from it," but that didn't transfer as well as I would have liked. Maybe I'll have to add a follow-on line or parenthetical note to clarify. Ah well…
Status, Within and Without
Status – a person's condition, position, or standing relative to that of others – is a blight upon the species. It automatically creates division and conflict and cannot do otherwise.
And by the way, I'm hardly the first to reach this conclusion. Here's St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus) writing in the New Testament:
[W]hen they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.
Not only does status poison our interrelations, it poisons our self-image. The very concept requires us to think of ourselves as above or below every other being.
So, in terms of external status, we can try to steer away from it, but we can't control how other people categorize us. We can try to teach people that status is a prison to be escaped, but until they're emotionally ready to give it up, they will not. We can plant seeds if we do it carefully, but after that it's up to them, not us.
Status in our own minds, however, that's something we can change… and if we want to function more fully and happily, it's something we should change. Status cannot help but create damage. Either we're above the other person (dominance, arrogance, etc.) or we're below the other person (envy, bitterness, etc.). The very concept is a no-win proposition. The very best it can attain is "the same," which easily enough rolls into "us versus them."
And here's the thing: None of us are monochromatic beings, fit for a single descriptive phrase or even a dozen descriptive phrases. The very act of accepting such a thing limits us and cannot do otherwise.
So, if you want to think of yourself as "a being seeking to understand," "a being seeking to grow," or something similar, that's probably a good start… certainly much better than ethnicities, professions, and so on.
In the end, we're probably best off dropping all such things and ending up back at the Bible: "I am." Or, "I am that I am." But most any sort of first step is better than no first step.
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A book that generates comments like these, from actual readers, might be worth your time:
I just finished reading The Breaking Dawn and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking, amazing books I have ever read… It will be hard to read another book now that I've read this book… I want everyone to read it.
Such a tour de force, so many ideas. And I am amazed at the courage to write such a book, that challenges so many people's conceptions.
There were so many points where it was hard to read, I was so choked up.
Holy moly! I was familiar with most of the themes presented in A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the concepts you presented at the end of this one.
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