Who are we? Who are you and I? What is it to be human?

Big questions indeed! And it’s not as if they haven’t been asked and answered time and time again, most often as metaphor:

Are we evolution’s endgame?

 Is life a stage and we are merely actors?

Are we pivot-points in history, part of a grand narrative and, as Kenneth Burke put it, entering the middle of a conversation and leaving in the middle of a conversation?

Are we just nodes in a vast social network, purely subject to the winds of larger forces as they swirl around us?

In short, yes.

These are certainly questions that force a wide perspective—and what more perfect venue then a blog entitled “The Big Picture” in which to tackle them? Answers would be interesting, no doubt, but how about useful? It’s unlikely. We could easily pitch back and forth between theories of reality, personhood, identity, etc. And in the whole mess, we might forget about the more important question: who are YOU?

I haven’t the foggiest. But I am in a unique position to know who I am. And in considering the previous list of questions for myself, I give myself perhaps a better vantage point when it comes to what to do. That’s really the endpoint of any philosophical question, isn’t it? What should I do –or- should I do anything at all?

I, like yourself no doubt, am an individual with my own thoughts, ideas, opinions and attitudes. I’m part of a family. I have to work. I endeavor to continue living. And whatever I do, I have to move through my particular society. Sometimes my society makes me proud, other times I’m a bit disgusted, but for the most part, I just get on with it. I have pressures, stressors, challenges, frustrations and blissful moments.

It would seem that everyone is in the same boat, which is true to an extent, but we’re still looking at things from too wide an angle. Humanity is a nuanced organism, with an array of subtle but significant differences. Imagine taking everything from the previous paragraph and changing the context—different thoughts, ideas, opinions, attitudes, families, employment, society, pressures, stressors, challenges, frustrations, etc. Things aren’t looking too similar anymore!

If we’re all actors on the stage of life, everybody has a different stage. If we’re living out some narrative, each story is strikingly varied. From this perspective, what it is to be human starts looking impossibly complex.

This is why it can become difficult to moralize—or even give good-natured advice. Making sense of life becomes rather intimidating. We start making things easier on ourselves by categorizing and pigeonholing, accepting things at face value. We subscribe to ideologies, letting some dominant social value deduce the answers to countless questions for us. We start thinking in terms of magic bullets, where one problem’s solution must be the solution to everything else. We put things into one of two boxes: good or evil, right or wrong, constructive or destructive.

But, as we’ve established, being human isn’t black and white, it is the entire spectrum of colors. Strip away the shortcuts and identity and then social roles and relations to others look chaotic, circular, maybe even pointless. Suddenly, your personal stage is occupied by an impossibly enormous symphony orchestra as it warms up—things look familiar but they aren’t working together and the result is a loud, terrible, anxious dissonance.

Recently, I’ve been borderline obsessed with the question of “good” or “right” information. Refer to a previous blog about common sense. I’ve been nearly driven to the brink by the realization that nearly every assertion has an equally valid counter-argument. Even history, which we think of as a series of concrete events in the past, are subject to the perspectives of historians, or editors, or publishing houses or entire societies.

Which is why, maybe, perspective is the key word. Maybe the question isn’t, “What is it to be human?” We know that on a very basic, intuitive level. Maybe the question is: “What is it to be me?” What are my patterns? What do I think about “x” or “y”? How do I react to given, repetitive situations and why? Do my behaviors serve my purposes?

There are great advantages to self-awareness.

Mostly, who we are works quite well for us. We get by, survive, even have a bit of fun now and then. But there will inevitably be times when something doesn’t work the way you want it to. Maybe you’re not doing well in a relationship or a job. Why is that? Who better to examine then yourself?

Perhaps your path to self-awareness lies in meditation, or reflection or mathematical calculations of your past and present, involving lists and charts and whatnot. I don’t know.

But you might consider some things in THEE as a launch pad. Interacting for Benefit is widely relevant, as is Your Better Self. You might be able to see yourself more deeply, and as a bonus you will see pictures of others and what makes them tick. Just an idea.

The point is, philosophy is great at questions. The social sciences are good for broad categorization and identifying commonalities. When it comes to you, what works for you in your particular context, you’re different and unique. It might be useful to treat yourself as such.

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