For that matter, who are you? Someplace back in my distant past, possibly during my teen years, I came up with a theory about my identity. It goes like this: I am a combination of three things – what other people tell me I am, what I tell myself I am, and what I really am.
Each of these are unknowable. I can’t know completely what other people are telling me I am. So much of it goes into my subconscious unnoticed. So much of it is a result of the culture I was born into. So much remains unexamined no matter how much I navel gaze or submerge myself in introspection. So much is open to interpretation. It was only fairly recently that I discovered that being left handed caused the world to tell me that I’m an oddball, that I don’t fit in, that I’m a weirdo. This became part of who I am through constant comments about my left handedness, through the pause on the first day of school while the teacher searched for a left handed desk I could use. Of course this is all trivial. Still, it became part of my identity, of who I am.
Similarly, who I tell myself I am can never be completely known. I am constantly revising my description of myself, usually when I make a discovery that is at odds with what I tell myself I am. For example, I tell myself that I am an honest person. Yet I am constantly reminded of occasions when I was less than honest, or when I tried to avoid having others see the truth of what I am. Lately this has taken the form of not wanting my wife to catch me taking a late night chunk of chocolate. Doing so while pretending to watch my weight is dishonest. Again, trivial. But still an indication of a tendency to be dishonest.
Finally there is what I actually am, which is an amalgam of these three things, what other tell me I am, what I tell myself I am, and what I really am. All of which is so tangled together that it is impossible to know what I really am. I continually surprise myself, or how I will actually act in any real situation. Will I be the man I would like to be, a paragon of virtue and courage. Or would I be the sniveling coward or succumb to temptation. I never know until the situation happens to me.
I remember, years ago, discussing a scene with a very well known and accomplished character actor. I think it was Ed Nelson in an episode of J.J. Starbuck. In the scene he would play, he would be threatened with a gun. He had been in so many movies in which he was killed that he actually made of show reel of clips – being thrown out of an airplane, thrown off a building, shot with a hand gun, shot with a machine gun, hanged, burned alive, drowned. He also made a show reel of him committing homicide in as many and various ways. He told me that he had always wondered what he would actually do in a real life situation facing a man with a gun.
One day he found out. He was in his Malibu bedroom when he heard a noise from the ground floor. He came down the stairs to suddenly find himself facing a burglar pointing a gun at his head. He told me that he would never have guessed how he would really react in that situation. He had always assumed he would be movie hero cool, perhaps coming up with a James Bond quip. What he actually did, he said, was to go into immediate hyperventilation. He lost all control of his body. He couldn’t catch his breath. He was helpless. The robber pushed him into a chair and tied him up, then proceeded to collect anything in his home that had resale value.
I was delighted to hear this story from my actor, and asked him to play the scene exactly that way. That’s television that nobody has seen before. But of course the actor couldn’t do it. It was just too far from his TV and movie persona. Too far from what the audience would expect or accept.
End of Digression
So there you have it. Three things that make up an identity: what you are told you are, what you tell yourself you are, and what you really are. All unknowable. It’s what makes self discovery so endlessly intriguing.
This theory of identity lead me to a governing principle of my life. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “You are what you pretend to be, so you better be careful what you pretend to be.” Very early in my life I decided that I wanted to change the composition of what I am, to reduce the percentage that came from what people tell me I am, and increase the percentage of what I tell myself I am.
I wanted to be more self-created, less a product of my environment and culture and more a person who is really a self made man.
I was telling people that I am a movie director a long time before I had managed to direct anything at all, let alone anything of significance. I kept this up long enough that the world started to agree with me. If you Google my name today you might learn that I am a Canadian movie director. It’s amazing. Now it’s not just me telling people that I’m a movie director. The world is also telling me that I’m a movie director.
Is this a proof of concept? It seems that way. But of course if I hadn’t had the directing success that I’ve had, admittedly far more limited that I would have hoped, saying that I’m a movie director would just make me delusional. Maybe it takes a touch of madness to create yourself. I think I can lay claim to that too.