What am I?

05 Jan

Exploring my identity is not a new pursuit for me.

I have lived and traveled in Asia quite a bit and I’ve come to understand that there are some very significant differences in perspectives. We talk about the “Western world” or “the West” or “Western civilization”, but we often do so without specifically contrasting it with any other “world” or “civilization.” We tend to just leave it as some ambiguous collective of ideas, namely, whichever ones we (as Americans) are familiar with.

But I’ve seen first hand that there are some different world views between the East and the West.

A few months ago I had some health questions, and I had the opportunity to meet with a doctor who was born in the East and trained in both Eastern and Western medicine. Truly, it was the most peculiar medical exam I have ever experienced.

He first took my pulse using three of his fingers, which he placed ever so carefully on the veins of my wrist. He then examined my tongue. And he also had me remove my shoes and socks so as to examine my feet.

That’s it.

His conclusion was that my kidney function (or was it my liver?) was a little weak, and that I tend to be “cold.” He explained to me–this Eastern born, Western trained, Christian doctor–that my qi (pronounced “chee” and sometimes spelled chi) was a bit out of balance, tending toward the cold side.

He prescribed (and provided) some Chinese herbs, and I took 21 pills a day for 30 days. He also advised me to avoid cold foods (salads; I’m okay with that) and to focus on warm ones (cooked meat!).

Did the treatment make any difference? I don’t know, but the whole idea and experience intrigued me.

What am I?

I recall taking an introductory psychology course in college, which I mainly took as a prerequisite for taking a biological psychology elective, an examination of the interplay between the mind, emotions, and body. However, I became so disenchanted from the intro course with the notion that we, and our thoughts, and our emotions are really nothing more than a collection of electrical impulses firing across synapses, that I resorted to just  scraping by in the psych course and selecting another elective instead.

What am I?

There are so many different schemes we can use. Is qi the core concept? Is some sort of mind, body, soul trichotomy more accurate? Or maybe a simpler dual idea of being both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) is better?

How am I defined according to the West? And what about if the East sees me differently? Am I one thing in America, and another when I’m living in Asia?

I could easily drive myself (whatever that is) crazy with these various contemplations and reinventions of my personhood based upon my geographic location at any given moment.

So I guess I need to opt for some other definition of what I am: one which is not confined within me, or even within a given culture or hemisphere.

Does a dog know that it’s a dog? Probably not, but I suppose it figures out a few things as a result of its interactions with other dogs. It figures out who’s the Alpha, where the food comes from, and who can be played with (and when to do so). But I suspect that a dog’s most significant revelations about itself, or concerning what it’s supposed to do, doesn’t come so much from its study of other dogs, but rather from its interactions with people.

Humans have a higher perspective than a dog, and as such can communicate more clearly to the dog about its nature, about the expectations for it, about its right behavior. A dog can’t learn such things from another dog in the same way.

Similarly, we can learn some things about ourselves by interacting with other people, but the lessons that can be thus learned only go so far. Eventually, we’ve got to turn to Someone with a perspective higher than ours, One who understands more deeply our place in the world, and the stuff that we’re made of.

YinYang symbol inlaid in the walkway at the Summer Palace in Beijing. (Photo taken by the author.)

So, am I hot or cold? Is my qi unbalanced? Is my brain chemistry out of whack? I don’t know.

As interesting as such pursuits may be, I guess I’m just going to have go with whatever He says I am. And I probably will never fully understand that.

But that’s okay with me…and my qi.

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Posted by on January 5, 2012 in Life, Theology


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