If I asked you what makes you who you are, how would you answer?
Maybe you would tell me about your family background or your religious background. You might tell me that the genes of your parents make you who you are.
Maybe you would expand the sources of your identitiy by explaining some of your genealogy. I have a distant cousin who traced our family name to Bauke Pybesz Abbema who lived in a town in Friesland, Holland, early in the sixteenth century. I don’t remember the names of the many others who came between him and my grandparents, but they are still part of who I am—just as your ancestors are a part of who you are.
And there is more to what made you who you are, isn’t there: all the people you have known, the schools you have attended, the teachers you have learned from, the experiences you have had, and the decisions you have made. All are part of the story of what makes you who you are.
There is still more. Science says that your story goes back much farther than your human genealogy. It goes back to the very beginning. That means you are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe—all those elements that formed after the big bang—and later the big molecules created by exploding stars. Then tiny life forms that grew on earth several billion years later. And later yet, larger plants, simple animals, and eventually complex animals like saber tooth tigers and apes. All these evolutionary stages are part of your story too—and therefore part of you.
But when humans came along,a sort of wild card entered your story.
It had taken billions of years to get molecules and plants and animals. Then, in a tiny fraction of that time-span, there were people. People who changed life on earth dramatically as they learned to use tools and language, and created intricate social systems. And just a moment later in earth time, they brought computers, the World Wide Web, and iPhones. And—unfortunately—along the way humans brought terrible wars, environmental degradation and terrorism.
How did humans bring such amazing and dangerous complexity so swiftly? Obviously—through the human ability to think, and in thinking, to decide and to create. The human mind opened a world of wonderful possibilities and at the same time opened Pandora’s Box. Probably one reason you—just one person—seem so complex is that you have lived in and are still adapting to the wonders and the craziness humans have brought!
If you reflect on all this, it’s easy to feel like a helpless pawn of evolution and the forces of history. But happily, being one of those humans, you too have the ability to think, to decide and to create.
That means you have a big say in what makes you who you are. You are different from all other people in your knowledge, and in what you love and what you don’t love. When you make decisions, your decisions may be accompanied by inspiration or fear, knowledge or ignorance, confidence or uncertainty, but they are uniquely yours. And they contribute a lot to what makes the future you.
So have we answered the question, “What makes you who you are?” A little, I suppose.
Maybe a larger answer is to be found in learning a little more each day: about the long evolution that culminated in you; about your connection to other people; about your relationship to the earth.
And learning how much you contribute to who you are by acting deliberately as you live out your own amazing story.
(This piece is adapted from a meditation I spoke at C3—West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Community.)by