Who Are You and Other Ridiculous Questions

Art by M. F. Hussain

At some point while asking ‘who are you’ many may find enough ground to laugh and ridicule the human condition, which is why the other ridiculous questions hover around ‘who are you’. It is definitely an important, but sometimes ridiculous question considering the tragedies and comedies that accompany humanity.

Who an individual is, or the capacity of being who they truly wish to be, starts by understanding the nature of the world around them. Just like you will never understand what a fish is, if you have no idea what water is, similarly the earth, represents the expanse of the human home. Any home has issues and gaining an outsider’s perspective can be helpful. Similarly, to understand the issues of the human home, one has to perceive how it would be like to step outside of it.

The opportunity to gain this privileged perception is limited to astronauts, who are physically able to reflect upon the planet. The cognitive stretch in awareness that occurs when you look back at the earth from space, is known as the ‘overview effect’. It unites you with the idea that humanity is one community. It is what Astronaut Chris Hadfield describes as ‘the world had become us for me.’

Which raises the question, if we are one with the world, why do aches of the human condition paralyse us? Albert Camus identifies this as our need to be “cured” that was present in Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher could always find an almost equal number of stumbling blocks, and hassles in any either of any two situations – may that be choosing marriage, or not, committing to a the purpose of living, or not. So he retired to a life of celibacy and devout Christianity. Within religion he found the answers to the questions of what he identified himself as.

This path has been undertaken by most of our ancestors until the current modern times. However, many today do not rest on the assumption of religion to identify who they are. There is an increasing focus on logic and larger cognitive self-awareness, on what can be used to define us. A new secular lens may choose to define itself based on feelings, experiences, and backgrounds that form our pillars of belief.

But when it comes to asking ‘who are you?’ it may not be the best idea to entirely trust our feelings. Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of India’s greatest modern philosophers, writes

“Right thinking comes with self-knowledge. Without understanding yourself, you have no basis for thought; without self-knowledge, what you think is not true”

Book: The First and Last Freedom

This reminds us that our feelings, experiences, and conclusions may often be tainted by our limited grasp on our awareness. It is the result of what Cooley says — ‘I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am ‘

So if we are hoping to define our selves without a historically created structure of a religion, or community, we start looking inwards. You start by asking the right questions, before looking for the right answers, as Krishnamurti says. As human beings our focus is our well being, that may be amplified with the right questions and eventually right answers. Kierkegaard found his understanding of well being in religion, but if we want to be secular, we must transport the weight of finding our self-curated well being, on our own shoulders. It would be the process of admitting that “without self-knowledge, what you think is not true”, and moving on to improve our understanding of our self-knowledge.

Thus, the ‘overview effect’ may humbly remind us that we are an insignificant blip in the history of humanity, but we are yet significant enough to be part of a larger human community where we hope to understand who we are.

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