In the Hindu faith, men hope to pass through five stages of life: childhood, student, householder (parent, spouse, etc.), elder, and seeker of wisdom to prepare for the next stage after death.
We in the West tend to think of life as a struggle: learning who to be, learning what we are, working to be successful at that identity, striving to maintain our identities in the face of myriad pressures ranging from addiction, to old age, to ill-health, to poverty, and finally a struggle against the death that we may or may not accept (or be allowed to accept) gracefully.
The Hindus, whose beliefs date back to 1500 BCE (with far more ancient roots), have long understood what we in the west often fail to realize: that we do not have fixed identities. Setting aside the fact of quantum change (that we are completely different physically from one instant to the next), we are not the same person at thirty as we were at fifteen, or seven, or five. Our outlooks and perceptions of life, ourselves and others change drastically over time.
I have “been” at one time or another, a pilot, police officer, addiction worker and several other things. For many years I used those “identities” to avoid looking at personal characteristics such as emotionally disturbed child and adolescent, immature adult attempting to cover up those things, addict (ceding control of my life to things outside myself), recovering person, and now — whatever. But at no time have “I” actually been those things. They were learned skills, my professions and avocations, my afflictions, often my hiding places from the “me” that I didn’t want to acknowledge, but not me. Not ever.
Identities are not forever, even if we want them to be. There is never a point where we are simply one thing. It’s not that easy. Our identities change, evolve, devolve and switch tracks during lives that are “process, upheaval, reversal, change, and a continuous process of becoming.”¹ We can learn to control the direction of this evolution, to a degree, but if we want to become, we need to pay strict attention to our path and the tools we use to get there.
So when someone asks “what” we are, our answers (at least in our heads) might most profitably be kept in context, remembering that the question includes who, and attempting to incorporate it into our answer.
Assuming that we really want them to know.
¹Answers In The Heart, Hazelden, 1989.