When You Take It All Away
How do we define ourselves?
“How are you?” She asked me, as she always does.
“Good. I went to work today. Pitched a new project. Ran four miles. Went to a board meeting. Caught up with a friend over coffee.”
“No,” she interrupted. “I asked how are you? Not what did you do today.”
I admittedly didn’t have a prepared response. Fine, I guess. Feeling fairly accomplished and wanted. And yet that was no real answer. I spent the drive home only half paying attention to what else she was saying, and mostly mulling over my inability to answer life’s most commonly asked question.
Since there’s no blueprint to how to live life — no agreed-upon or holistic metric as to what constitutes contribution to society, happiness, fulfillment or success — I’ve often attempted to calculate one, and use it to provide an objective, unbiased answer to the question: “How are you?” I would, rather than describe a feeling or condition, I would attempt to provide a summary and conclusion, and base this upon quantitative data. “I did X, Y and Z today. A, B and C happened to me. I feel N.”
This is, of course, fundamentally flawed. I’m constantly incorporating the totality of my life as recorded by a watchful, omnipotent eye, as I assess how I feel about, and how I should feel about, how I feel at any given moment. That’s a kind of mental gymnastics no one’s equipped to medal in. Not without a cascade of self-doubt to the point of madness.
And so I’ve been struggling, lately, to decouple myself from all the things I associate with “how are you?” For example: who am I devoid of context? Extracting oneself from the trappings of life lived so far has proven to be a herculean challenge. How, and who, are you when you take it all away?
If I were to lose my job tomorrow, who would I be? If I were to stop writing and lose my audience, who would I be? If I were to get into an accident and be unable to run or speak, who would I be? If, god forbid, I were to lose a friend or parent, who would I be?
I’ve already been so many things in my life: destitute, successful, loved, single, Republican, Democrat, spoiled Bills fan and sad Bills fan. I’ve been a weatherman, a marketing professional, a bartender, a musician, a philanthropist, a writer, a runner. I’ve been tons of things, and yet my core identity can be boiled down to answers on a demographic survey: I’m a straight, white, single, American 36 year-old male. But that can’t be all, no? After all, how are we supposed to assess ourselves?
I think about morality often. Particularly lately, as moral truths seem to be discarded as proper guide-stars in favor of other, more hedonistic and heathen status signifiers: wealth, power, sex, beauty, Instagram followers. I wonder how much of our morality we sacrifice in service of these. And how much morality we ascribe to people who score highly in status. It’s a question worth asking. I wonder if moral truths are the only way to truly assess someone. I wonder if it’s truly inextricable from status.
If you take away what I’ve accomplished and what I have, I am not sure how to answer who I am, morally: I’ve done good for the world and the people in it. I’ve done bad to the world and the people in it. I’m not sure where I net out. I don’t say that to prompt you to try and clarify this for me — I simply find the question unanswerable with any degree of certainty. I think that’s part of the problem: there’s no real way to know how we’re doing. Even morality exists on a sliding scale, since society is fundamentally amoral, and often immoral.
I come up for air. There are no easy answers. There are no clear conclusions. I realize, now, seemingly, that this is the point: that life is meant to be lived … not so obsessively measured or thought about.
I think there are five spectra upon which we can plot our lives: health, morality, impact, truth, joy. Did we live well? Did we do good? Did we do enough? Did we do it our way? Did we enjoy it?
I think, perhaps, maybe if we just make more healthy decisions than not, do more good than harm, and do things that matter — all without losing our identity or sense of joy — I think that’s enough. I think that’s all we can ever really use to assess ourselves. I don’t think there’s any real quantifiable metrics here … just a general sense. If we cultivate the self, and listen to it, it should be able to tell us in the silence when everything else is taken from us. In the end, it’s all taken from us, including our life. How we’re measured after that is neither our concern, nor under our control. I hope I’m remembered as healthy, moral, meaningful, authentic and joyous.
So, how am I? I suppose the only correct answer left is, “time will tell.” And who am I? I suppose a work in progress.
Maybe that’s all life is: a series of beta-tests where each decision yields a new iteration, each version slightly different from the previous one, and the finished product only launches after we’re finished breathing. I hope I turn out awesome. I hope you do, too.