We arrive at each of our ever-evolving definitions of self through our relationships.
I use the term 'relationship' here as broadly and inclusively as possible - my connection to the guy who just cut my hair is a relationship, as is my connection to the woman asking for change outside of CVS the other night. I have a relationship with my mother; I also have a relationship with the nameless (nameless to me, but not nameless to his friends, family and those whom he knew and cared for) 28 year-old Afghani man who was beaten to death at the Pontianak detention center in Indonesia this week.
The only significant narrative of identity it is possible for us to create is this:
"Who am I in relation to... ?"
Every other narrative is superficial. Our brainbodies are hardwired for relationship - relationships are the vital data our supercomputer minds devour as they endlessly define and redefine what it means to be, what it means to do, what it means to live and breathe and think and act.
Our possessions? Immaterial. Cars and clothes, no matter how expensive or how much we personify them, don't provide the living reflection/response needed to activate within us that cascade of a cell-speak which results in a deeply felt experience of self. Instruments and homes may come closer, as instruments do respond to how we touch them and homes may be a gestalt of living and non-living places that change over time... but I believe another conscious, living being, (plants included... and if you want to get all hippy/trippy, why not the stars and the ocean, too) offers us our supreme self-definition opportunity.
Yes, tree-hugging is fun. I'm an advocate. And it's also very safe, as the tree is highly unlikely to say:
"Ew, you smell." or: "Fuck off don't touch me." Or start crying in your arms. (Depending on how many mushrooms you ate, I suppose.)
Other people, more than any other huggable thing, challenge our self-understandings. Other people test us. It's our relationships to other people that give us a chance to consciously define who we're going to be, or unconsciously allow our identities to be created for us.
In relation to that woman outside of CVS, I chose to be the guy who gave her a dollar. I'm also the guy who didn't want tto analyze that decision too much, because earlier that day I had avoided eye contact with a man asking for money outside of Walgreens, and it was partly my earlier avoidance that prompted me to give this other person money.
I feel challenged by the reality of my relationship to every other human being on this planet, especially the millions who are suffering. Who am I in relation to the less fortunate is a question I try not to ask myself too much, because it's hard not to feel like I'm letting them down, like I could be doing more.
I try not to look away too much, either. Although if I spend too much time thinking about other people's pain I get overwhelmed and forget how to take care of myself, and that's not helpful.
I think the closer we get to home, the easier it becomes to relationally self-define. Who am I in relation to my co-workers when they show up late, or when I show up late? Who am I in relation to the kids I babysit for when they lie about their homework or tease and bully one another? These questions are more specific, offering us a more limited (and therefore more navigable) palette of possible answers: Do I choose to complain? Do I choose to pretend like I'm not feeling anything? Do I choose to listen respectfully, even if I don't like what's being said, and then respond by acknowledging my emotions and communicating my preferences without putting the responsibility of my emotional state on the other person?
I also think the closer we get to home, the harder it becomes to consciously self-define in this way. The more intimate our relationships, the more vulnerable we are. Thinking about the suffering of millions of people I don't know and feeling abstract grief is one thing - choosing to love, care for, and expose myself to someone who is suffering is something else entirely. And no matter who we choose to love intimately, they will inevitably be suffering at some point.
The closer we get to home, the more diligent we need to be. Many of us see friends and co-workers every day, leaving those relationships wide open for unconscious reactionary patterning. And that's ok, because it's bound to happen - but it we practice our relating the way we practice our jumpshot we have the opportunity to transform that patterning into something we find more beautiful.
Rumi said: "Let the beauty you love be what you do." So let's let the beauty we love be how we relate. Let's notice how we respond, verbally and non-verbally, to other people. Do our own responses make us smile? Do we feel satisfaction and pleasure (or even delight and joy?) in observing how we choose to speak to strangers, or friends?
What does delight you? What sort of beauty uplifts you, and makes you feel glad to be alive? Do you like spontaneity, humor, flirtatiousness? Compassion, silence, listening, or strength? Tenderness? Chances are it's not just one quality - it probably depends on your ever-changing feeling-state. Whatever the best medicine may be for you in any given moment, know that you can provide that to yourself. You can give yourself whatever it is you feel you need, but the only way you can give that yourself is by giving it to someone else.