An invitation to not know yourself
“Who am I?” is a difficult question to ask because you can’t ask a question if you think you already know the answer, and to not know the answer to this particular question is far too vulnerable for most of us here in American society to tolerate. We don’t trust not knowing in these parts. We’d rather, it seems, have bogus answers than unanswerable questions, especially when it comes to the question of identity. To not know what you think about something is unseemly enough in the American cacophony, but the act of not knowing who you are would go beyond humiliation. It would be an implicit challenge to the assumed reality of those who haven’t been willing or able to honestly ask this question of themselves.
This isn’t to say that we should not or cannot know who we are. It’s just to say that what we discover about who we are once we’ve been willing to not know, to let go and to open, to listen: this is another kind of knowing altogether which can lead us to another kind of being.
When our understanding of ourselves isn’t sourced in a living relationship with the unknown, when it is sourced instead in the rote patterns of our imagined certainties, we stonewall ourselves from knowing what can only be known by not knowing. In such a state, our perceptions can’t help but be darkened by the ignorance of what we have not been able to see due to our unwillingness to go into the dark. Identified with our familiar attachments, merged, there’s not enough space, not enough unknowing, to remember who we are beneath and beyond the character we’ve been playing.
Imagine an actor in the role of Hamlet who so thoroughly forgets who he really is during the show that he can’t stop playing the role once the performance is finished. In the lobby on your way out, you go up to have a conversation with him. What he says to you, how he carries himself, every aspect of the interaction is influenced by his misunderstanding. He answers you as Hamlet, not as himself, so you can’t connect with him, the actor, the real man. And seeing as he is in the midst of misunderstanding himself, he will naturally misunderstand you. Believing himself to be Hamlet, he can only see you as a character in the story he thinks is real. You’ll become Ophelia in his illusory world, or Claudius. There isn’t a single nook or cranny in the terrain of your relationship that will be untouched by his confusion.
The history of humankind is a catalogue of catastrophic non-conversations between people who have forgotten who they really are or never knew to begin with, the traumatic drama that ensues when the actors confuse themselves to be the characters they were told they are or the characters they created as reactions to the projections with which they had to contend. Conflating ourselves to be something we’re not, we live out the delusions of the scripts we inherit, or we live out a script that revolves entirely around the rejection of what we inherited.
We’re all bound to live a story, but what that story becomes depends entirely on the degree to which we are aware of who it is that’s living it. This awareness is simply, and most challengingly, our ability to keep listening in response to the question “Who am I?” rather than fix ourselves onto any of the answers that arise as we listen.
I am not Hamlet after all, not what they told me I am, not who I thought I was. What we can begin to experience when we are no longer certain about ourselves is the beginning of our own lives, our own authentic story, the actor off-script, remembering herself, awakening to the role she chose to play for her time on stage, and returning home again to her beloved who has been waiting for her all along.