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     Who am I?
* Note

Goethe once said that “all of us seek answers to three big questions in life: What is the story of all mankind? What is the story of my time? And what story is mine alone?”

This statement of Goethe tells us that, at least, a part of who we are depends on the story in which we are participating. We each have our own personal story; it would guide the narration in an autobiography. However, Goethe is saying that our personal story also depends on our place in world history and on the important events of our time. World history has a story. So do our nation, our community, our family, our circle of friends. We are what has happened in these stories. Our identities are shaped by life experiences.

It would help to improve our sense of personal identity to know more about world history and to know where, in the broad sweep of events, we currently find ourselves. Then we could act in accordance with the currents of history instead of swimming against the tide. But if someone must swim against the tide, so be it. That may be his personal story. It would help him to know, at least, what he is doing.

With respect to world history, here is a link to a related web site: This web site presents a particular theory of world history, saying its story is organized in five epochs, or chapters, each associated with a civilizations. The civilizations are states of society and culture, building cumulatively upon what has come before. They follow one another in successive epochs of history.

In each epoch, some parts of society are in a creative phase while other parts are experiencing decadence and decay (but not final extinction). According to this theory, we as a people are currently in the fourth civilization whose culture is focused on entertainment. But the fifth, computer civilization is on the horizon. Creative possibilities lie in this sector.

One should not say dogmatically that stories alone give us a sense of personal identity. There are many other elements. For instance:

(a) We may be a product of our education. If someone says “I am a Harvard man”, that means something. A Harvard education brands its graduates in a certain way.

(b) We may be what we like and dislike. Maybe we like a certain singer or type of music. Maybe we like particular sports. Maybe we like to read fiction. Maybe we like Democrats but not Republicans, or vice versa. Maybe we are apathetic to politics. All these things go into our sense of personal identity.

(c) Maybe we are a product of our nature at birth. We are male or female, tall or short. We belong to a certain race or ethnic group. We may be born with a particular genetic disease or, conversely, are in excellent health.

(d) Maybe our religion is the most important element in our personal identity. Our chief goal is to live up to the ideals of our religion or exhibit absolute faith in someone like Jesus or Mohammed.

(e) Maybe we are a product of our thoughts. We ourselves have had certain thoughts and, therefore, we believe them. “Yes, I had that idea myself” says something of one’s personal identity.

(f) Maybe we are our set of skills or our possession of knowledge. Human-resource departments look at us in this way. To them, we are what we can do for the organization in particular positions. They want to achieve the best “fit” between the position and the aptitudes and experiences of job applicants.

(g) Maybe we are the particular products that we buy. We are whichever consumer profile we happen to fit. Large companies are forever mining data concerning past purchases to see who we are from their perspective. We are a package of tendencies to consume various products. Commercial and political marketers carefully track and define identity-based groups that can be approached with a certain message.

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A Commercial Statement on Identity

Budman’s Anthem

This is WHO I AM.
This is WHAT I LIKE.
This is WHAT I DO.


Budweiser, King of Beers

That’s enough. There may also be many other ways to put people into categories expressing their identity. Our purpose here is not to find useful ways of fitting people’s unique personalities into groups but to ask: What identity do you wish to have? What is important to you?

An advantage of knowing our own personal identity is that we can then perhaps find other people of a similar nature and tendency. That knowledge would enable us to form meaningful groups. To be with others like ourselves allows us to bounce ideas off each other and acquire new insights about ourselves and about the possibilities in life. We would have a richer knowledge and experience than if we had to do everything by ourselves or understand everything by ourselves.

Also, individuals assembled in groups can act in a coordinated way. They can be politically more effective. Sharing tasks, they can work together to accomplish more things. They can have a greater collective presence in the world.

To gain a more accurate sense of our own personal identity is also inherently beneficial. Socrates stressed the importance of self-knowledge. For him, this was the highest good. It allows people to focus their lives correctly. It allows people to avoid being exploited by others because of identity weakness. It allows them to identify their highest values and purposes, doing what will bring true fulfillment.

* Note: The woman in front (second from right) is Teresa Strand. This 46-year-old woman learned that her colon cancer had spread to her brain and liver and she had only a short time to live. Surrounded by her cousins, she was photographed at a "living wake" held in her honor at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.

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