“You are, when all is done — just what you are” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).
WHAT WE ARE RIGHT NOW STANDS BETWEEN WHAT WE USED TO BE AND WHAT WE WILL BE. Our “identity” consists of the characteristics that we actually possess. It may change and be different tomorrow, but our identity is not what we ought to be or plan to be: it is a description of the facts about us at the present moment. In Goethe’s words, “You are, when all is done — just what you are.”
These days, many individuals, especially the young, are concerned about “finding themselves.” This may or may not be a useful endeavor. If we’re trying to learn self-honesty and gather objective information about the characteristics we currently possess, that can be helpful. And if we’re trying to decide what set of characteristics we want to have in the future, that kind of introspection and goal-setting can also be helpful. But if we imagine that there is some sort of “identity” floating around in space, just waiting for us to “find” it, then we are sadly mistaken. Good identities are not found; they have to be built.
Some of us have the problem of trying to have too many identities. Like the author who wants to write a book that nobody will dislike, we try to please everybody with our identity. But this is futile. When we try to please everybody, we please nobody. That is the moral of the Aesop fable The Bat, the Birds, and the Beasts: “He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends.” None of the “animals” will appreciate us if we try to be every kind of animal all at once.
But obviously, we do need to know who and what we are. We need to be in touch with our true identity. As Djuna Barnes pointed out, “A strong sense of identity gives man an idea he can do no wrong; but too little accomplishes the same.” If there is such a thing as too much concern for our identity, there is also such a thing as too little.
Yet many people spend too much time working on the appearances of their lives and too little on their character. Eager to be thought of in a particular way, we concentrate on projecting a certain image. But our character — that is, our real identity — is of far more consequence than our image. And, in fact, the most efficient way to acquire an acceptable image is simply to be what we wish to appear to be.
“It matters not what you are thought to be, but what you are” (Publilius Syrus).