BY JOY ERICSON
Today in Speech class, my teacher posed us students a question. “How do you know I am who I say I am?” And I knew instantly what the answer was. Or at least the academic answer that she was looking for. No matter who the speaker of that question happens to be, the answer is:
No one can know if someone is who they say they are. When a person speaks to a crowd, each audience member must individually determine if they trust the speaker. But people can lie as easily as they can breathe. If a man walks into my class and tells the students that he is our teacher, there is no way for us to know if he really is who he says he is. His confidence may have me convinced that he is my teacher. However, that acceptance is rooted in trust of the school and of my own judgement, not based on knowing.
Based on the helical model of communication, people gain knowledge of the people that they meet, slowly at first, but then that knowledge base expands if they remain in contact. As time passes, confidence grows and people go from being acquaintances to friends, then from best friends to soul mates. Yet, anyone who has been posed the question, “How do you know I am who I say I am?” is left with a nagging feeling in the back of his or her mind. The theory states that you can never truly know anyone. The confidence any person has in a friend builds in the telling of stories, in the late night conversations, in the passing of a cigarette from one pair of lips to another, and yet, in a single moment, that trust can be broken.
People’s theories about the world, about people, about friends, about lovers, are the same. People can be as confident as they want in their perception of others, but the police reports confirm, no amount of trust can stop people from betraying each other. Therefore, no one can ever truly know with one hundred percent certainty anyone.
And that sat well with the realist in me.
But then it didn’t. I have a curly headed best friend named Margaret. People usually reserve the term ‘soul mate’ for their romantic interests, but truly, I feel Margaret is my soul mate. She’s held me when I’ve cried, made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe, held my hair when I clutched the side of a toilet bowl; she’s heard my murkiest confessions and doesn’t hate me for them. She sees through my lies when I’m trying to cover up my true feelings. Perhaps no one can know for sure if people are who they say they are, but surely there is a loophole here. Margaret knows me. And I know with one hundred percent certainty that she knows the authentic me.
This idea that we cannot know for sure if we know the truth, based on the fact that our theories can always be proven wrong, prompts me to wonder, ‘what makes a person then?’ The question, ‘how do you know I am who I say I am?’ asks, and answers at the same time. It is chained to the idea that there is an answer to ‘who am I?’. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I consider that there is no concrete answer. Contrary to every personality quiz I’ve seen on Facebook, people don’t fall into nice little categories. Personalities don’t fit in boxes, labeled and ready for shipping. People constantly change, as the environment and biology play together like a child does in a sandbox, and there is no way for any mortal to calculate the future. I don’t know what decisions I am going to make tomorrow. There is no puppeteer controlling my flesh and bone. I am lot of things: an artist, a sister, a friend, a writer, a dreamer, a realist, and these are all concrete things. But even I don’t know how I will react if the sky cracks like a windshield and starts raining down like shards of glass, unless it happens. A personality, is what people call the pattern of responses the body and mind of a person has to stimuli through chemical reactions in the brain. And a person’s perception of these patterns is also simply the product of more biological processes. People are like computers in the way these chemical reactions between neurons work to pull at our flesh and command the cells to grasp a cup; but the brain is so complex and efficient that to pull apart and analyze why a person does what they do is a question left to philosophers, poets and therapists, not scientists.
All that said, I still claim that Margaret knows me. Perhaps she cannot predict my next moments, but she makes accurate guesses, just as I can make guesses. She adds each moment with me to the reservoir of knowledge of all things related to me. Her knowing of me is just as good as my knowing of me… So perhaps the question could be turned inward instead.
“How do you know I am who I say I am?”
“How do you know you are who you say you are?”
The question isn’t a simple one that I can raise my hand and answer with a short sentence. The answer isn’t about trust this time. The answer is about what knowing means. There’s comfort in facts and logic, but there is also beauty and mystery swirled into logical and rational conclusions. At least the way I see it.
For it seems pretty evident that knowing something for sure would be the most important aspect of a piece of information. I propose that it is not. What people believe to be true, often has more to do with the future than the facts themselves. If a person believes themselves to be strong, even if perhaps they have a disposition for cowardice, the belief will trump the truth. The lie will become the truth. If a person believes to be unloved, even if they are the most beloved by their peers, the reality in which the person lives will be a place of fear and sadness. If a population believes a hurricane to be a mere inconvenience and do not prepare for its destruction, the belief could have them all killed. And that’s when that pesky word appears, “could”. “Could”, “would”, “should,” not “will”. There is no way of their knowing with one hundred percent certainty what chaos the hurricane could rain down, yet someone could die. Is their knowing arbitrary or of the greatest importance?
So now I’m here with this uncomfortable truth. Perhaps the ability to analyze patterns of human behavior and interactions are of great help to me and the rest of humanity. But they are all just patterns, and not rules. Drawing conclusions from data, from the late night conversations, from the lingering glances, from the way the sky suddenly turns grey is the only way to live. But that doesn’t mean that the perceptions will be objectively faithful to their pattern. They have no obligation to be. How do you know if this essay is a masterpiece or utter nonsense?
How do you know I am who I say I am?