There is a concept common place in art, literature and philosophy : The Ages During Life. These ages vary in number from four to seven. In the west, the concept of The Ages During Life is said to have has been around since the early 12th century. Regardless of its source, The Ages During Life refers to the different stages as one progresses from birth to death. The same concept is presented in foundational Chinese literature describing how the body’s abilities and presentation change as we age.
William Shakespeare took this concept and integrated it into many of his works, the most familiar of which is from his play As You Like It
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…
Act II, Scene VII
In this one brief statement Shakespeare presents some significant concepts. I would like to focus on the last line. Shakespeare intimated there are many parts we play, son/daughter, mother/father, solder, scholar, etc. in our presence on stage during our play of life. This is an extension of the “Ages” concept beyond periods during life, to roles played during life’s stages. However, each of these parts focus on “What” we do instead of who we are.
Perhaps a more familiar concept will foster some understanding. Consider an analogy by thinking of Shakespeare’s parts in a play as articles of clothing. There are various styles, materials and colors. We have many wardrobe items for different aspects of our life: working out, formal occasions, office attire, etc. But, who are you underneath all of the clothing? Consider yourself, do you wear a single outfit, or do you wear multiple outfits at a time? When you change from one outfit to another, do you ever stop to see who you are before putting on a new outfit?
There are no shortages of individuals expounding activities to address the travails of life in the forms of physical practices, meditations, dietary supplements, seminars and more. If we look at the base aspect of each of these, they provide a method of trying to reduce stress and anxiety but do not lead us any closer to an answer of an important question, “Who Am I?”. Though uncommon, we occasionally get asked the question, Who are you? Our response beyond just saying our name is to start describing the roles that we have, or continue to perform in our play of life.
Ask yourself the question and see how you can respond beyond using roles to describe where you fit into your play. Ask yourself, Who Am I? when you are at your most calm and centered. Ask yourself, Who Am I? when you are under the most stress, in the greatest hurry. Can you answer beyond just responding with the role you are playing at the time you ask. Who am I? How do your answers differ between these moments of questioning? The differences may be a guide towards the real answer to see your real self between your changes of clothing.
Who Am I? – Three simple words, together, forming a very difficult question. It is far easier to go through life identifying ourselves with our roles and not expending effort to find out who we are. In fact these roles can be a means of insulating and protecting ourselves from the world, other people around us, or even from ourselves.