BY PERCY ALLEN III
“Who are you?”
I thought I would find the answer in my perfect GPA, my overloaded schedule or in my writing-focused extracurriculars. Yet, for each achievement, happiness felt just as unattainable. I watched it move further and further away, as if taunting me for my insolence.
It did not once cross my mind that working was how I defined the entirety of my existence. When I am not in class, I am working on homework. When I am not working on homework, I am writing a piece for my university publication. When I am not writing for my university publication, I am writing for myself.
When someone asks me to describe myself, I can only come up with work-related terms. I am a hard worker, a fast learner and an excellent writer. I am far more comfortable with the question of “What do you do?” than I am with “Who are you?”
“Who am I when I am not writing?” I began to ask myself. “Who am I when I am not doing schoolwork?”
When I tried to sit in stillness with these questions, the response grew louder and louder, until I was forced into silencing it.
“I don’t know.”
Overworking is an incredibly insidious phenomenon, as society tends to heavily reward those who do it. My ability to cope with overcommitting myself got me into the university, has bolstered my reputation as a hard worker and has enabled me to seek perfection in everything I do. Through these experiences, I learned that productivity comes first and everything that dares to interfere with my ability to be productive must be a threat.
I began to deny myself time to do basic tasks like eat meals and see my friends. I would spend entire weekends doing homework, sometimes working ahead on assignments that weren’t anywhere close to being due. I stopped finding joy in hobbies that I once used to escape the pressure of daily student life, as I felt they were distracting me from my schoolwork.
I lived, breathed and dreamed of work. However, as the accomplishments of my academic conquests came rolling in, each of them began to hold less meaning than the one that came before it.
Now, more than halfway through my time at the university, the voice in my head grows louder than ever. In a futile attempt to drown it out, I have begun writing more and studying harder. My friends have been seeing me less and less. My perfectionism has started to seep into parts of my life that have nothing to do with productivity.
I began looking at “Who am I?” as a puzzle that demands to be solved – a task that needs to be executed. Every day that my answer remained “I don’t know” meant another day I had failed.
It is only when I sat with the question that I learned the following: The difficulty with existential inquiries is that they do not have answers that can be tangibly observed. No matter how hard you try, no one solution will suddenly manifest.
The answers are instead found in the way in which you appraise the question.
In being truthful with myself, I realized that I found confusion and ignorance shameful – only through controlling things to the best of my ability did I feel safe. My personal intolerance of ignorance diminished my ability to have genuine curiosity, replacing it with an insatiable obsession to learn, do and improve at any means necessary.
In reappraising how I view myself and the world around me, I have realized that I cannot know everything because I am not all-knowing. No one is all-knowing. No amount of overcommitment can ever bring me close to knowing everything.
We are all afraid. We are all growing. We are all learning.
With that said, it is okay that I do not know who I am. It is also okay that I won’t have A’s in every class, that I’ll make mistakes and am afraid of life after graduation.
I realize that I am not just a university student. I am a son, a friend, a sibling, a teammate and many other things. It is only when these aspects of myself are allowed to coalesce that I am a whole person – a whole me.
Who I am comes not from what I do, but how I wish to define myself. That power is mine and mine alone.
It is possible that I will not keep getting straight A’s. Perhaps I will not land an amazing job directly after graduation. If I commit to being an author, maybe none of my books will sell, and I will become a martyr for the arts.
But why are these the societal determinants of a good life? And, doubly so, why should I feel the need to follow these rules?
The key to delivering oneself from the prison of expectations is realizing that happiness is the only goal of human existence. How you go about finding it is solely up to you.
I have learned that I will likely never fit in a box suitable enough to answer the question of “Who are you?” “I am Percy, and I am happy” sounds like a great start, though.