“Who am I? Why am I here?” I will never forget the surprise I felt hearing these words from Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s vice-presidential candidate, at a debate of VP candidates in 1992. He seemed spaced-out and confused at the time, ill at ease on the stage with the other candidates, and this seemed a poor way to introduce himself to the American public as a candidate for high office. Reading about his background as one of the Navy’s most decorated officers in history with four Silver Stars and the Congressional Medal of Honor, and a scholar of the classics, gives one an entirely different picture of the man.
The Admiral was a person worth listing to attentively and his questions, “Who am I” and “Why am I here,” were intended, I think, to queue up a discussion of his background, his qualifications and the beliefs that brought him to the stage to meet the public. Unfortunately, at this time and place his remarks were disconcerting to the listener and when his hearing aid gave him problems later on in the event it was easy to dismiss him as a doddering old man, unworthy of being considered for the office he was a candidate for, and a slightly sad joke.
His questions were such a jarring non-sequitur to me and to everyone else who was expecting standard politician-speak from everyone on the podium that I’ve never forgotten the moment. It demonstrated the negligible impact that asking really good, unexpected questions at the wrong time can have on events. Despite the oddness of his approach, as I said, I never forgot his remarks and came to appreciate later that Admiral Stockdale had shown an unusual consciousness and awareness of the larger questions of life, questions that most of us instinctively shy away from because we don’t know how to answer. He had found his answers through long, slow years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp and a lifelong study of philosophy, and was ready to share them.
Where do we find our answers? Who am I? Why am I here? And, why does that matter? Who does it matter to?
The university I attended believed in delivering a classic liberal education so I had to read a wide variety of philosophical works in college, authored from ancient through modern times and from Eastern and Western traditions. I haven’t found that any one philosophy provides a full framework or answers all the important questions of life for me, but a consideration of existentialism provides, I think, a helpful context to look for an answer to the Admiral’s questions. Borrowing liberally from Wikipedia, a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for the questioning person is the fact that he or she is an individual—an independently acting and responsible conscious being (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individual fits (“essence”). We are who we make ourselves through our actions. The actual life of the individual rather than any preconstituted formulation of religion or philosophy is what provides or produces what could be called his or her “true essence,” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence used by others to define him or her. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life. (There is a lot more to existentialism than this, but that isn’t the subject here.)
If it is true that who I am proceeds from what I do and how I do it, and I think that generally is true, does it then follow that when what I do in my daily life changes, my essence changes and if so, how? Surely, if I have been working as a butcher and then become a baker or candlestick maker my essence, my character, who I am, does not change, so looking at one’s occupation or trade to define one’s self can be to consider the matter with too fine a level of granularity. It must be said, though, that some occupations have such hard edges on them they are life-altering and thought-changing pursued in the long run even after they have been left behind, and we have all seen examples of this in people we have known. Speaking in general, however, these are just the kind of labels, roles and stereotypes that we should look past in considering who we are. We still do it, though, especially men, I think. Who am I today? Who have I been? A college student, then an insurance underwriter, then an insurance broker. Now, a client executive and subject matter expert. I have long thought of myself first as what I get paid to do; I think that people who have a certain level of success in their work default to this self-definition if it occupies much of their day. When we are not that successful or when our work looks like it is changing on us we can lose that self-definition as an important foundation of our identity and become uncertain and confused. It is a trap easily fallen into.
I think this is especially true if our work and personal lives have indistinct boundaries, and my own have been particularly indistinct for a long time. “Personal business comes first,” was my mantra during my busiest work years because I could not concentrate 100% on my clients’ needs if urgent personal business wasn’t taken care of, and put behind me. This meant that sometimes bringing my bills into work and writing checks & mailing them off was my first task of the day in the office. It could also mean personal phone calls taken at work, or afternoons spent reading materials to prepare for evening non-profit board meetings, in between fielding work problems that were brought to my door, once I got an office with a door instead of a cube. Conversely, for 20 or more years I spent 60-90 days (and nights, which is the larger point) each year, travelling away from home on business. I answered my work e-mails via laptop or Blackberry while watching TV in the living room or sitting at the kitchen counter next to my spouse (who was doing the same thing), presentations were written and edited over many evenings and weekends, and I returned phone calls and handled urgent business while “on vacation.” I’ve never had a clear delineation between my personal and business lives, there have been no defined edges, so a change in my business life has a sharp impact on everything else; nothing is unchanged.
Our essence is defined by what we do rather than by the preconceptions we or others have about the roles we play. Alright, but we do still have to play these roles, some in sequence to others (son, student, breadwinner), others concurrently (worker, father, partner), and take them seriously. Some of our roles in life come with scripts that we understand, some come with fragments of scripts that only suggest what we should do and what we should say, and many more seem to arrive without any instructions at all and we’re simply flung onto the stage to figure it out. Sometimes it seems we discover a script only after that act in life is over, as in the way we can look back at a failed relationship and only then grasp what was missing and how there might have been a very different third act to the play if we had only understood what really had transpired in the first act and what we needed to do for it to turn out as we originally wished.
A memory apropos to this point is something that happened the quarter-break after I had proposed to my first wife, when I was home between college terms in March of my junior year, and I told my mother about the wedding being planned for September. I don’t remember exactly what her reaction to the news was but I am confident in saying it was not unreserved joy. That evening she returned from Moorhead, where she’d visited the Clay County library, with a stack of books on relationships and communications she thought I needed to read. My reaction was a feeling of disinterested puzzlement.
My mother knew me better than anyone, she knew about life, she cared about my happiness, she knew about the role I was going to be playing after marriage and she knew that I lacked many of the skills and insights that could enable success. She was right, my mother was right (she would appreciate my repeating that), but did it do any good? No, because I was so clueless I didn’t know I was clueless. Well, I didn’t read any of it. There was a script to the role of partner and husband that I didn’t know, but I merely looked at those books and wondered, “What is this about?”
How do we define for ourselves or learn for ourselves who we are and why we are here? I think there are elements both of discovery and of deliberation in the answer, and evolution in our natures over time, to complicate the matter – or perhaps it actually simplifies it. Like the world, we can and usually do change over time – what we do, what we learn, what we know, what we believe, who we are with. Experiences and lessons build on each other. Many terms of our existence are not static, and the answers to the Admiral’s questions, Who am I,” and, “Why am I here”, must change, at least in part, for all of us as we live life. The answers are not static, they evolve with us.
Accepting my eventual retirement (the point of this entire discussion, by the way) as part of a natural evolution in my “who and why,” as something possibly providing an opportunity for growth, and not regarding it as an implication that my employer considers me worn past the point of usefulness, should make it easier to look forward rather than backwards. It should make it easier to find my next answers to the questions, “Who am I” and “Why am I here.”
I ran across a quote from the Admiral that puts facing facts and facing forwards in a harsher context than my own, but a context I can appreciate nonetheless. Speaking of the lessons he learned from his long years in captivity after being shot down over North Vietnam he said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” You must deal with today to live to tomorrow if you live in a prisoner of war camp.
I have no problems at all in comparison to Admiral Stockdale and my current reality has blessed few brutal facts, but adopting a more accepting attitude towards change and greater faith in my next step, and reminding myself of these things while solving the business and personal problems put in front of me today, are both unwritten parts of my script that I need to figure out and write down.
Postscript: My premonitions proved to be correct. I was “packaged out” later that year with about 3 months’ notice, retiring on December 31, 2013, at age 64, with 32 years and 10 months of service at the firm to my insurance clients. A very respectable run as these things go. I still miss the good parts of the job.