defining oneself

Last night N and I took a university-organized trip up to see Jersey Boys on Broadway.  It was lots of fun, and both of us were surprised by how many songs we knew and how interesting the plot was.  Overall, it was well worth the trip.  The show, however, is only the starting point for my ramblings.

On the bus ride home, several people near us were talking about the time zone of Australia.  There were lots of silly things about this conversation that N and I nitpicked later (like the fact that Australia has multiple time zones), but the gist of it was they they couldn't determine if Australia was ahead of or behind US Eastern time.  They needed a smartphone to figure it out.

While eavesdropping, I worked through it pretty quickly: Australia is west of the international date line and the sun rises in the isn't that hard.  I thought to myself that while I don't know facts like "Australia is X to Y hours ahead of location B," I have a good grasp of general facts that allow me to figure things out.  I've always been that way: logic over memorization.

Preening my ego, I began to think about usefulness and how I was a generally useful person, being able to figure out such silly things and all, but was soon deflated because of the thought that usefulness is so vague.  Lots of people do interesting, amazing, and productive things, but usefulness is one of those things that is entirely relative.  Sure, I might be good at cooking, but how about singing?  Definitely not good at that one.  I can write computer programs, but I'm totally twisted up when it comes to fixing cars.  People's abilities vary, and we rely on each other to create a beautiful, full world.

Humbled again, I began to think about how we define ourselves as people.  In the Australia case, I was defining myself as "useful" and thinking about all the things I can do.  I feel like as humans we do a lot of self-definition, or at least I do.  I am that, I do this, I would never..., I always....

One fragment of our self-definition comes from our possessions, partly because it is one way of allowing others to see how we see ourselves.  Clothes are strongly tied with identity in many cases, as are gadgets, books, etc.  We even use how little or much stuff we have as a label, e.g. "I'm a minimalist."  These things or lack thereof stand out because they are physical, which means they are easy tools to use, especially since so many of them come pre-loaded with stereotypes.  As a society, we'll always use the visual clues to guide us in classifying others: everything from high school molds to various types of religious modesty and dress.  As long as we are willing to accept individuals beyond those first impressions, it's okay, normal, and even helpful in navigating our insanely complicated social waters.

In addition to using objects to shape ourselves, we also like to make general statements like "I'm a nice person."  Self definition along these lines can boost our self esteem or throw us into a spiral of depression ("Nobody likes me.").  Ties to adjectives or blanket statements will always be broken.  Even nice people need to be selfish occasionally to survive, and those who think that they aren't likes are often surprised by how much love and concern others have for them.

I'm slowly learning that I need to just stop trying to define myself and just be myself.  (I just wrote pure cheese, my friends, but it needed to be said.)  I know my specific skills (cooking, programming, etc.) and use them.  My nice car doesn't appear to jive with my otherwise so-called hippy-style, but it's consistant for me.  I can identify plenty of ways I'd like to improve myself.  There are so many facets to being a person, that it isn't worth the time to try and box myself in.  ...and no, I'm not trying to call myself a "free spirit."

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