Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Two responses to my call for writing prompts, questions and requests have come in so far: The first is from the young Dan B., who submitted the following last week:

"I find myself, nowadays, defining myself by myself more and more, even as I believe it is the groups that I am and am not a part of that define me. I've yet to figure this one out, but what do you think defines a person in the grand scheme of things? Is it their actions, their beliefs, or is it what groups they're a part of, like I'm thinking? While we're on it, how do you define yourself?"

Oh, Dan.

In all of the thought that I've given to this question since I've read it, I've been finding myself unable to really commit to a message. I'm reminded of a conversation I had, a few months ago, wherein Elorza, in an bit of an ornery mood, I thought, was challenging my own definitions of myself in the context of being a writer. He asked if I thought of myself as a writer, then was somewhat angrily incredulous when I answered with a simple "yes." He pushed for more definition-- if I was so brazen as to call myself a writer (when he did not dare to call himself one), then what was a writer to me, and what was it about myself that qualified myself as one? What accomplishments did I have, what passion?

I found the whole conversation annoying, really, but not nearly so maddening as he seemed to find it when each of my answers refused to give in to his demands for specificity and reasoning. I tried to explain my preference towards not clinging to a set definition for concepts that mean many things to many different people, but this was seen as a cop out. His definition of a writer, it seemed as he went on, must have been one who is unafraid to define things in the world in which they live, making me seem, somehow, the hypocrite of the conversation.

Had I been willing to give in to what he wanted, I might have told him that it was my willingness to put myself out there, to commit my thoughts and feelings to words and then submit them to the judgment of whoever should care to read that makes me a writer. But that, then, would invalidate all those who write purely for themselves, as part of an inner dialogue or self-exploration, or for whatever other reasons a person chooses to write privately. And while I've never had any particular respect for that kind of writer, I've never had any particular disdain for them, either.

But that doesn't answer Dan's question.

I'm reminded, also, of a friend I had who thought herself a virgin who was particularly incensed when I told her I didn't think of her as one. My explanation --that while she thought of a virgin as someone who had never engaged in coitus or broken their hymen, I thought of is as someone who had never had sex in any form-- did little to comfort her; neither did my insistance that she ignore my definition. I told her that I wasn't judging her, that I had always known the facts as they had happened and simply because those facts translated, in my mind, to a different status, that status was basically irrelevant to who she really was, to her true definition, if you will. She then enlisted the help of others to help win me over, so sure she was of her own virginity. Everyone else involved felt the same way: a virgin was someone who had never had vaginal sex. I tried to agree to disagree. It wasn't enough for them.

Thinking that their definition was the most popular, and therefor convenient, when I was asked many years later if I was a virgin (after my first encounters with oral sex), I said "yes". The person who was asking me, not the brightest needle in the haystack, then responded with "You've never even kissed a guy??" I didn't really get the relation, but I moved past it and told him "No, I've kissed people, and I've had oral sex. I've just never had vaginal sex." "Oh," He said. "Then you're not a virgin." "Okay." I said. Because it was.

My definition of what a virgin was didn't change who I was. I knew what I'd done and what I hadn't.

But that doesn't answer Dan's question, either.

Dan, there are a lot of things I could say about this. What you've asked is what defines a person "in the grand scheme of things" so I guess that's easier to answer: The grand scheme of things, as I would define it, refers to the universe, existence, and on that level, I guess one person doesn't matter that much. On that level, an individual person gets no more definition than any other individual person. To the universe, person equals person, just the way that, to us, no one grain of sand has any defining characteristics to tell it apart from any other grain of sand.

But that's all philosophical B.S., so let's narrow "the grain scheme of things" to a level where it's most practical in this context: the world, the people in it. To the vast majority of the people in the world, Dan, you are defined by a the groups that you are in, from a somewhat statistical view: You are male, you are young, you are white, you are from North America. But that's not very interesting either.

So let's get a little closer: what defines you to the people you will meet, or who will know you in one way or another. In fact, let's start with what defines a person to themselves.

What I find most interesting is this: a person generally defines themselves by their thoughts, or their beliefs, as you mentioned. Within yourself, there is this whole world of self-interest. Every thing that runs through your head is part of you, as you see yourself. Every feeling, every question, every moment of consciousness contributes to your own definition of yourself, and in that way, you can see yourself a million ways: A philosopher, a poet. A person of great compassion, a person of endless depth.

But to everyone else who will ever know you, you are only defined by your actions. No one hears your thoughts or feels your feelings, they can only see what you do with your time. True, the action can be as simple as speaking your thoughts or writing them down, but don't forget how much is lost in translation, and, with that in mind, consider devoting some of your energies to something less self-serving.

Dan has asked a question, in his questioning way-- I've always defined him as a person of curiousity, a person who looks for answers. And I've answered it with my opinions, and I've always assumed people thought of me as someone with numerous and complicated opinions. What other actions are people defining us with? Good or bad? Or, as is most likely, totally mediocre? We should all remember, perhaps, to tread lightly in this, or, more aptly, to choose carefully when to really stomp and march. Ultimately, that tender knowledge of ourselves that makes us endlessly sympathetic of our actions and inactions, that's all us.

I honestly have so much more I could say about this, Dan, but how much is saying it really worth? Originally, I was going to go with a diatribe about how there is one of two groups a person can fit into that will truly define his life: the happy people, and the sad people. But I'm not sure if I believe it or not, if that's a group that you're in, or just another set of actions. Anyway, as a writer-- and I am one-- that's not the thought I wanted to commit myself to today. Too much of that to get lost in translation.

On with it.