“So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them.” -Stephen Chbosky

As I previously quoted, Churchill said that history was written by the victors. Our personal histories rarely have a winner though. Can there even be champions in routine lives? With the possible exception of a eulogy, those of us not found in history texts will not have our lives broken into accomplishments, failures, actions, and timelines. Nor will our motives be analyzed or memorialized beyond those that we know most intimately. So, do our friends and family decide how our story will be told? Do we? What defines us?

We are what we repeatedly do.

There is an important point that must be considered before we can say whether or not Aristotle was correct: Are we in control of our actions? Every time I get into a conversation with a theist, the same issue comes up again and again: Free Will. The whole idea of sin, punishment, and redemption is dependent upon the belief that we have full autonomy. The question of independence has pestered theologians, philosophers, scientists, and laypeople for centuries. I’ve looked into several opinions and read rather extensively what people on both sides think and yet I remain unconvinced by either argument.

Whether or not we have Free Will is not simply something to muse over, it is important in practical ways. Can we hold criminals accountable for their actions if their circumstances or brain (or both) had made their crime inevitable? Can cheating spouses be blamed for fulfilling their destiny? Is one’s choice to rebel or conform decided by factors outside of their control? Our actions seem to lose their significance if we look at them from a deterministic standpoint. The only scientifically minded believers in Free Will tend to be either compatibilists or think that the answer lies in Quantum Physics. While I remain unconvinced, I must admit that such reasoning often feels flimsy and grasping. Still, determinism doesn’t satisfy me either.

For now, I fear we must act as though we have Free Will because, well, what other choice do we have? Perhaps it is because I have waded into the Free Will debate that I feel this way, but I think that Aristotle was wrong. While what we repeatedly do may determine our habits, actions do not define us fully and in many ways I think that our conduct only shows the most basic representation of who we are.

I think, therefore I am.
-Rene Descartes

Actions cannot give a complete view of who we are simply because while what we do is the fruit, our thoughts are the seeds. Without them, nothing is grown. Telepathy has been disproved time and again but I do hope Science will give us a practical version of it in my lifetime. For now, the only person privy to one’s thoughts is the thinker. The mind’s detailed formations are free to wander and build in solitude. This privacy makes it worth arguing that what happens between the ears of a person is their most honest embodiment. Mental musings can range from inspirational to judging, self-deprecating to selfish, violent to benevolent.

From the ocean of our introspection, only the waves that reach the shore actually result in activity. Each of us encompasses a vast sea of emotions and surely the desires that we act upon show certain facets of our personality but the intentions behind those acts are definitive as well. It’s been said that you never truly know someone until you have walked in their shoes. I’d alter that. We never truly know someone until we have experienced their thought process, examined their seeds. This isn’t possible yet, it may never be. For the most part, we all seem to navigate our minds by the same constellations but I think the route we take and the ship we make are essential pieces to the puzzle.

I only know my own mind and I don’t even know if I am in control of it. Circle fully walked, I am back where I started. As Charlie contemplated in The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.

The history books may forget us but in the end our thoughts and our actions are choppy waters mingling together, the bubbles on the shore. Our story is written by those who know us but we get to narrate…I think.

ocean shore

The days drip away,
raining faster
past us.
Not a drizzle or a shower,
but a torrent of great power.

Our histories, our mysteries
filling and spilling
o’er the water tower
of our hours.

Ever fleeing, ever gone.

Rain soaked faces
fill the common spaces.
Swept along the gutter,
never to return.

Float away olden days.
The ever-pouring water stays.
Catch a palm of water gone,
it’s left before you’ve felt it.
Rippling over tender skin
leaving wrinkles of the when.

6 thoughts on ““So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them.” -Stephen Chbosky

  1. Theists only believe in free will in order to “save” god for the blame of evil in the world. But even if this would be true, then still god was the one who gave us free will in the first place, and hence (s)he allows evil caused by free will. As far as I know, no theist has ever explained why the existence of a free will is so important, that god values it over preventing evil.

  2. If (if) we can be defined, then it is in a sense that is constantly shifting: I am not who or what I was in my childhood or teenage years, or ideally even yesterday. We are defined in Ent-speak, by means of stories that take too long to tell, and so we don’t–we make up labels that fit only poorly from moment to moment and attempt to make them force them upon a person who won’t any longer even exist by the time we get them stuck in place–and in so doing we misunderstand the nature of Self completely. We are, then, I would argue (in answer to your question) defined by indefinability.

    One of my favorite quotes ever: “The worst of us are a long, drawn-out confession; the best of us are geniuses of compression.” U2, “Cedars of Lebanon”

    1. Came across this quote reading Gaiman’s new book, I think you’ll like it:
      “Nothing’s ever the same. Be it a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.”

  3. John S. Allen (from The Lives of the Brain, 2009)
    “The brain is truly wonderful and complex, seamlessly and apparently effortlessly able to attend to multiple tasks at the same time. However, the human brain, via religion or science, art or technology, has yet to figure itself out.”

    Floyd E. Bloom (in the Introduction to Best of the Brain from Scientific American, 2007
    “The study of the human brain and its disease remains one of the greatest scientific and philosophical challenges ever undertaken.”

    Thanks for the fix. All better. 😀

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