What defines me?

Originally published 7/9/18.

When we’re young, we tend to ally and associate with people who share our thoughts and opinions. It starts when we are little kids asking about people’s favorite colors, moving through to favorite music or bands, and even as adults where we ask more delicate questions like “who did you vote for” or “what do you believe in?” I subscribed to the idea that these thoughts and ideas were my attributes and would garner a host of people who would be in my best interest at all times. What it ended up doing was bringing me to an understanding that I had nothing more than a cheering section for my beliefs with no substance. When faced with this truth, I had to ask myself: “Who am I?” 

A heady question with tons of different answers. Trying to nail down only one facet of what defines who I am opens more doors in my mind about other things I enjoy and do. This spirals, and the thought has to be banished or else I can get lost for quite some time. Sure, I could list things I like, things I think are moral or ethical, what groups I associate with, but do those things really define me? 

I was raised Catholic, so does that mean the church and its teachings in completion are a defining factor of who I am today? What if only a small part of the church or its teachings had an influence on my life? Does that mean I am under a generalized umbrella because of my affiliation past, present, or future, even without consideration of what amount I am affiliated? 

We see this in social media, news media, and forums where we join groups based on a larger idea, then get wrapped into the whole group when some of the members do or say something undesirable. Now we are labeled just as they, only due to our membership of that group. With the current news cycles, you can see that the idea of political affiliation has been watered down so much that anyone with even a slight belief in one topic or another is instantly labeled and immediately hated by the opposite group for their association. It is this ease which we separate ourselves and segregate groups of people, leaving us with a smaller pool of possible new contacts, friends, or acquaintances. It is this goal that we have unknowingly set for ourselves to divide and conquer, only to be divided as well.

To give an example: I have a friend I gained through a previous employer which we both would vehemently disagree on certain topics if given the opportunity to really get into it. I won’t lie, we’ve had a few small spats in the past, but it hasn’t gotten in the way of what brings us together. We have a common ground that we both can reach, which is the core of our focus in life. We talk frequently outside of the workplace and have no ill will towards each other, but we still believe in different things. These same things do not define me, and my relationship with this person and many others throughout the years are proof that I can be more than just a political stance in this haywire world we live in. 

Over the years I’ve come to understand who I am, to a degree, and how that affects my relationships in all spaces. I’m still learning daily and finding out new and awesome things I didn’t know about myself. It is this self-exploration that help me prepare for more positive interaction with others. The same friend from the example above would be a mortal enemy had I not learned some tools to better myself and my approach to relationships. 

As per the usual, I’m going to list some terms, define them (contextually), then explain them and how they apply:

Self – noun – a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.

Tolerance – noun – the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with; the capacity to endure continued subjection to something, especially a drug, transplant, antigen, or environmental conditions, without adverse reaction.

Common – adj. – occurring, found, or done often; prevalent.

Define – verb – make up or establish the character of.

Understanding – noun – sympathetic awareness or tolerance.

Detach – verb – leave or separate oneself from (a group or place).

Acceptance – noun – agreement with or belief in an idea, opinion, or explanation.

Ok, let’s put all of this together.

As you probably determined, the approach is to meet on a common ground, to be centrist on dividing issues and try to meet the other person where they are. I’ll go into further detail, but want to warn that some do not appreciate this approach. Trying to be non-confrontational on an issue or detaching from it can appear as avoiding the topic. There are times and places for debate, but in this case, the idea is to make better and lasting relationships in our daily lives, not to be a television personality or political pundit. A business or personal relationship is not the place to select which hill you will die on.

I’m not saying to abandon what you believe. Beliefs and morals are also a part of our make up, but we don’t have to allow it to be all-encompassing. If so, we have squandered an opportunity for business or a new friendship. So please be tactful in the approach, understand your audience before taking a stance or none at all. If you find you cannot detach from your beliefs on a topic, there is no shame in stepping back and saying that you prefer not to speak on a topic. If that isn’t sufficient, find an alternate topic or state that you need to step away for a moment. 

In some cases, none of these work, and people will still push for a definite stance. I had an experience with this just a few weeks ago, and taking that step to draw a line on what topics I prefer not to discuss was my only option. Unfortunately, this is an ongoing learning experience, and that person and I do not discuss much anymore. It is a shame that we could not meet on the commonalities we share, but it gave me better insight.

So, necessary warnings out of the way, how do we approach a situation that has the opportunity to be a powder-keg?

Royalty free art is limited, but fireworks will work as I’m going to bring up two topics that can cause a light show: religion and politics. I was taught at an early age that religion and politics should never be discussed in the workplace. I have amended this to “Religion and politics should not be discussed with anyone except those whom you share your thoughts with intimately already.” 

The assumption on the original phrase is that you’ll end up working for someone who has a different point of view or you’ll make some nasty enemies. I’ve been pressured by several folks in a business setting where I couldn’t walk away from the conversation, and it was awful. I was ostracized when constantly pressured in my workspace, and there was no full HR team to reach out which could have helped me. Fortunately, this isn’t a commonplace thing for me now, but over a decade ago, I was defined by my beliefs and you knew it, and if you didn’t like it, well – some choice words could go there, but you get the idea.

I do my best to abstain from discussing these topics, but dance around the edges when brought up in conversation. This helps me get a better idea of the logic the other person applies, what they feel, and how strongly they do. Is it manipulative? No. I want to know how other people think so I can tailor my responses and work towards a more common ground. This is not easy. It requires tolerance, which is not the same as acceptance. Sure, we can say that another definition of acceptance is the willingness to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation, but this does not necessarily apply as we are not talking about resigned acceptance or acceptance of a truth one can do nothing about

When politics come into play, I can say, without a doubt, that we have no concrete evidence that states a complex issue will be solved with one particular action. This cannot blind us to the truth that multiple facets exist for an issue, and subsequently, multiple actions must take place to resolve each facet. By standing firm on a single facet of an issue, I lose the opportunity to meet on a common ground and let my one belief define me.

To state the idea plainly: my beliefs are mine, not yours. I shouldn’t need to share them nor should I need to give them. I can’t speak on yours as they are not mine.

That rant out of the way, how can I then define myself? I’ve been told not to stand on a single issue, not to use my upbringing, my belief system, my hobbies, my favorite things to define myself. Then what should I define myself with?

Defining yourself is just as described in the definition, describing your make up and character. Character is defined in many ways, let’s look at a few that apply in this setting:

1. The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

2. The distinctive nature of something.

3. The quality of being individual, typically in an interesting or unusual way.

4. Strength and originality in a person’s nature.

5. A person’s good reputation.

Nature comes up a few times, so let’s dig some more:

1. The innate or essential qualities or character of a person or animal.

2. Inborn or hereditary characteristics as an influence on or determinant of personality.

Archaically, nature was used to describe someone’s character. In this context, we can see that we can use the archaic form to describe our essential qualities in an interesting or unusual way. Not in either of these breakdown definitions for define, character, or nature, does it say we must do it in an aggressive or divisive manner. We must define ourselves with character built from our qualities.

To answer my own question today, I define myself by my willingness to be of service to others. Not to be subservient or below other people, but to meet them equally and do what I can to help, if I can. I let that ability to stand on the same side as someone my near opposite and find what brings us together in some way, either through solving a problem or sharing an experience, we are all the same on a base level. Our humanity is what bonds us together. If we start there, I believe we can find a hell of a lot more we can see eye to eye. 

Now you know who I am, who are you?

-James

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