Dear No One,
It’s been a few months since I wrote to you and confessed that I didn’t know how to be myself, because I didn’t know who I was. I’m not writing to you now because I have found an answer to the questions I then asked. I still don’t know whether my favourite colour is navy blue or pastel pink, whether or not I like pasta, and to what extent I dare call myself ‘social’.
I did think about it, of course. Maybe a bit too much, but I reckon that by now, you’ve already concluded that I’m way too much of an overthinker.
Anyways, as I thought of how I could figure out who I was, and how I should be myself, I remembered a tumblr post I read years ago. The post was about a person responding to the question “what defines you?”. “Nothing,” they answered. “A definition excludes the possibility for change.”
That’s it, I remember thinking. That’s why I don’t know who I am, or how to be myself. It’s because I dare not define myself, for I don’t want to exclude the possibility for change.
I planned on sharing that revelation with you, Dear No One, and to offer advice on not having to be able to define yourself, as we are constantly changing, and definitions don’t change.
But now I’m writing that letter and I realise that the statement is not entirely true – because definitions do change. If you remember from sociolinguistics, the concept of ‘semantic change’ describes how words change meaning all the time. And isn’t that all I am, in the end? A word? Am I not who I am because of how you speak of me and how I speak of myself to you?
I refer here to Judith Butler’s concept of relationality, which states that one is who they are because of who they are in relation to another. It means that I am who I am not because I am me, but because I am a sister, a daughter, a student, a server, a friend. Each word signifies a different relation, has a different meaning, and carries a different connotation. And so it is no wonder that I am a different person depending on which word is taken on to describe me.
When I was younger, I was often told to surround myself with people amongst whom I could be myself. It was considered unloyal to oneself to act differently amongst different people – to wear different masks, as it was. But I’ve come to believe that to be untrue. If anything, I think it’s an admirable sign of loyalty to yourself if you can admit that no, you are not the same person now as you are in a different situation with different people. Perhaps it’s the highest form of freedom, to be able to define yourself using different terms or different meanings, depending on what feels appropriate at that time.
All these relations and words – they define me. But that does not mean that who I am is written in stone. Even Butler admits that change happens. In fact, a large portion of Butler’s writing is attributed to the transformation one undergoes when relations disappear, or come into existence. And to bring it back to semantic change – I am not the same sister to my brother as I am to my sister, and I am not the same student to a university tutor as I am to my former highschool teacher. I am not even the same sister or student today as I was yesterday, or as I will be tomorrow.
Most importantly, however, I am not the same me to myself as I am to you. It has been pointed out to me that I tend to present myself as a “good student”, that I highlight my academia side, and base my agenda off of uni assignments. But what if I told you that I accepted failing my IR final if it meant finishing sewing a dress for a book event? Or that I spent several hours in bed, watching TikToks, instead of writing my Thematic Seminar paper? Those sides of me can co-exist and do not need to clash. I can feel most comfortable in navy blue yet be spotted by most of you wearing pastel pink. I can call myself not social and yet socialise with you at a party.
All these different sides, these different versions of my persona, together they constitute who I am, was, and will be. Just because you only see one side of me, doesn’t mean you know me any less. And just because I show you only one side of myself, doesn’t mean that I am any less myself. Just because we all see different versions of my persona, doesn’t mean that any of those are less “me”.
It’s been a bit of a philosophical flow of words, Dear No One, but I think I can sum it up in my advice to you. Define yourself, don’t define yourself. It doesn’t matter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned – and which I hope to have helped you learn too – it’s that one is. I am who I am because of the relations that I have, the words I use to describe myself, and the meanings I attribute to those. I am, but I am not written in stone.
And so it is no wonder that in the end, every day, every moment, I come into being, again, and again, as something which I have yet to know.
P.S.: Dear No One, I do hope you forgive me for throwing in all these references to IS coursework. I do not wish to remind you of it during your well-deserved summer break. But what can I say – I lowkey love academia sometimes.
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