On Identity, pt 2 / the power of Why?

7 March 2010

Preamble: this will be a longer post about personal identity, more or less a followup on this post from a while back. As always, don’t expect a conclusion at the end.

I recently met with a close friend that I haven’t seen for over a year. As with all my close friends, the long separation with no news only served to make us enthusiastic about the amount of new insights and narratives share, rather than an indicator of declining interest in each others lives. In any case, we had a lot of catching up to do, and we did exactly that.

Now, I’m not always a nice listener. When I hear somebody relate a story of his life, I’m very interested with the intent of a certain action, and the events that afterward took place. A lot of people, however, tend to only tell me a sequence of events that happened to them. My company is doing good or bad. I visited such and such city. I bought the new iThing. So how do we get the information we’re looking for? The passions, dreams and perhaps a confession of sheer luck that have given rise to these facts? Well, one simple question of course. Why?

When I was asked my friend this exact question, I noticed it’s a tricky one. While you might ask it out of sheer curiosity, the person on the receiving end might perceive it as a challenge. Isn’t it obvious to you why I did this? Are you telling me it’s not obvious? Are you implying you would not do it in that way, and therefore want to know my reasoning? Maybe the person doesn’t want to admit the reason why he did things, because with the benefit of hindsight, he saw it was the wrong decision, and being wrong is not always an easy thing to admin. Or even the most socially unacceptable reason of all: it just happened, and I didn’t resist.

Explaining the motivation for acting or not acting is probabresly difficult, because we are afraid our conversation partner will judge us, more than if we just stick to the facts of what happens. And this is exactly why it interests me more: I feel closer to the person I’m talking to. I often think “ I wouldn’t have done that given my options”, but I rarely think “I don’t understand why he/she made that choice”. In daily life, I’m quite solitary, and I have many interests that are difficult to share directly with people (programming, writing, reading). But it bring me immense joy to talk to my friends about life. Just a few hours of reflection, respite of having to move forwards, sharing doubts and encouragements. And I noticed that this is not the case for everyone. Some people like to share everything, some people seem never to share their doubt about fundamental issues. I’m happy to start realizing where I stand more clearly as I get older.