Who am I when I am not telling people who I am?

Humans generate mountains of data as we describe ourselves to one another, but who are we when we are not describing ourselves?

I spent my writing session this morning ruminating on a quote by the Australian journalist Christine Jackman. The question arises for her during a silent retreat, taken to rebalance and calm her hectic life. Relieved of the need for social interaction, digital media, and the constant performative expectations of a successful life, she has to confront the question, “Who am I when I am not telling everyone who I am?”1

This question strikes me as an arrestingly poignant articulation of the paradox of the modern world. We generate terabytes of data describing ourselves to one another, but these “selves” we describe are selective, curated projections. If, at a meta level, we define ourselves as people who describe themselves to one another, how do we describe ourselves when we are not describing ourselves? Hence the paradox: we spend inordinate energy communicating who we are and what we think to others, but if you leave us alone with ourselves — and take away our little devices — these “selves” often grow aimless and antsy.

For Jackman, the question, “Who am I when I am not telling other people who I am?” prompts a self-investigative exploration into identity and relevance. But this response raises another interesting question: is there such a thing as “personal identity” apart from how I understand my relevance and relationship to other people? To think of an “identity” in a vacuum of all other human interactions seems impossible to imagine. Almost like a brain in a vat. (I am reminded here Cooley’s looking-glass self hypothesis.)

It is interesting what presuppositions might underlie the way one might respond to the question, “Who am I when I am not telling other people who I am?” One might hypothesize that there is some kind of innate “authentic self” that lurks behind (or despite) the public-facing declarations and posturing. Another might look at the question and surmise, “We are inherently social animals who do not strictly have inner spirits or identities apart from our interactions and positions in the group.” And still another respondent might reply, “When are humans not signalling to one another? The fact that Jackman is publicly talking about her personal insights on a silent retreat is itself indicative of a concern for what other people think of her.”

It seems difficult to answer the question without interrogating the presuppositions one brings to the concept of identity itself.

1

Jackman, Christine. (2020). “Seeking silence in a noisy world.” Big Ideas with Paul Barclay. Recorded at the Avid Reader bookstore in Brisbane on September 9, 2020. Broadcast September 30, 2020 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/seeking-out-silence-in-a-noisy-world/12689750