Who Defines You?

By Michael W. Gos

Houston, Texas

We’ve all seen the pictures and watched the drama of hurricane Harvey unfold on our TV screens. Some of us, unfortunately, were a part of it and are still suffering as a result.

Like most people, during the storm I was glued to the TV watching the flooding and the people being evacuated from the devastation. Most carried only the clothes on their backs and their dogs. But in those five days, we also saw those in boats, high-clearance trucks and Jeeps going into the water again and again to help out total strangers. And some people just didn’t understand that.

I was particularly struck by the Weather Channel’s comparisons between what they were seeing during Harvey and the scenes from New Orleans after Katrina. They expressed amazement at the difference. Other media seemed shocked, confused and totally dumbfounded by what they were watching. Why were these ordinary Joe Sixpacks taking matters into their own hands? Why didn’t they wait for FEMA or other government agencies to come in? After all, that is what we are supposed to do, right? Some of the “usual suspects” finally came to the conclusion that Texans were just different, in a bad way—renegades, if you will.

Most of us saw it differently. Texans are different I suppose—but in a good way. I would never question the exceptionalism of Texans. That is one of the reasons why I will never leave here. But I don’t think the actions we were watching those five days were unique to Texans. What about the “Cajun Navy” coming in from Louisiana, or the college students from North Carolina who trailered their fishing boats all the way to Houston to help out? Deep down, I can’t help but think, it’s not just Texans; it’s most of us.

 

Probably the most dominant philosophy of the last century, and still so today, is existentialism. This philosophy holds that man is born without an essence, be it what it is that make him human, or what it is that makes him the individual that he will become. Take a newborn horse for instance. Within minutes, he stands. A few minutes later he walks, then runs. Within 24 hours he can do virtually everything an adult horse can do. That is because he is born with his “horseness,” the essence of what a horse is.

Humans aren’t like that. For months, all the human baby does is scream and poop. He is helpless—more like a blob of protoplasm than a real human being. That essence, his humanness, comes later. One of the tenants of existentialism is that, as a result, we are all responsible for creating, then declaring our own essence—defining who we are. To the existentialist, it is in this self-definition process that we find purpose and meaning in our lives.

Yet it is surprising how many of us abdicate our responsibility and allow others to define us—to impose on us their ideas of what we will become, of who we are. Traditionally, this imposed definition came from family or from religion. However, recently we have begun to see a change in this. Sometime in the last few decades, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by total strangers—people outside our circle of friends and family who tell us who we should be. One of the most powerful of these external forces is the mass media. For years they have told us that America is a divided nation.

The divisions they impose on us are by politics (left versus right), race, social class and residence (coastal versus fly-over-country). Some people have actually accepted these definitions as fact and behave as if they are true. But Harvey shot holes in that idea.

During Harvey, no one asked about politics. Race was irrelevant. It was simply people helping people. We were all in this together. If we needed help, it was offered. If we could do the helping, we did. The only group we were members of was “neighbors.” To the media, this was a completely alien concept. They didn’t know what to make of it; it didn’t fit their pre-set narrative. Normally, if something doesn’t fit the narrative, they just don’t cover it. But this time, they didn’t have that option. Harvey was too big of a story to ignore.

I think what we learned from Harvey is an important lesson for us in many ways. It was great to see so many people simply refuse to be defined by anyone but themselves. We didn’t care what the media or the politicians thought. We knew exactly who we were—who we are—inside. We knew what was right and moral and we acted on it. We knew none of those things they say about us were true and we didn’t care that the talking heads were shocked and confused by it all. We went about the business of being who we are.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could remember this lesson—if we could apply it in the future whenever we are tempted to let someone else tell us who we are or who we should be? Why do we force ourselves to fit into the little boxes the world insists we must occupy? Perhaps it is because when we hear something again and again, for a long enough time, we actually start believing it ourselves.

Most of the time we certainly act like we are compliant. It is almost like we are semi-comatose and just follow the pack. It seems easier than bucking the flow.

In spite of that, in times of stress and tragedy, our true selves come out. Something touches us deep inside and we are reminded of our true natures. And we act in ways that are consistent with our true identities. Why can’t we always know, and act on, our own self-definitions?

Sometimes I think we just get lazy. When things are going along smoothly, we relax and just go with the flow. If someone tries to impose his definition of us, we just accept it; it is easier than fighting. That may be innocuous in the short term, but over time, we start to be more and more compliant until we lose track of who we really are. Then it takes an event like the tragedy of Harvey to wake us up and allow us to again find the true self within us.

And isn’t it beautiful when we do?

2 Commentss to “Who Defines You?”

  1. #1 Fan says:

    Thanks, Michael, for helping us readers find our own humanness. You never let our minds get lazy because you keep us thinking. Good for you!

  2. John Lampe says:

    As always, what Michael says is thought provoking and well written. His definition of existentialism was helpful to me. I disagreed with his commentary on the media but his praise of the citizens who helped in Houston was right on.

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