“Who Are You” was a song composed by Pete Townshend of The Who, as the title track of their 1978 album release called Who Are You. (Album? What’s an album?)
If you’re old enough to remember the song, you’ll have a hard time getting the tune out of your head…”Whoooooo are you? Who who? Who who? I really wanna know! Whooooooo are you? Who who? Who who?” (And, later, for us adults, the song asks pointedly, “Just who the f&*k ARE YOU!!!”)
But really, do any of us really know who we are?
And how far do we ever really get in finding this out in our lifetimes?
I mean, how well do we really know our family and medical histories, our genetic and environmental proclivities, our social and cultural histories?
What does it take to really get to know ourselves? Where are we supposed to be looking for the answers? And what are the intangibles we should be considering?
The older I get and the more I get to know people and their intimate stories, the more I have grown to respect the vast span of emotional territory covered by the question, “Who am I?”
Psychotherapy can help find some answers.
History and family history can both help.
Spirituality and religion can help.
But have you ever really followed the facts of your life back far enough to begin to truly understand why you are the way you are? Why you like or dislike certain things on an instinctual level? Why you feel very comfortable and thrive in certain types of situations and feel totally out of sorts in others?
Let me explain using myself as an example.
When I think about my own life—where I am now as compared to where my genes have come from—I start by knowing that I am the son of Italian immigrants who came to this country after surviving the second World War.
In addition, I know that I am the youngest boy of the youngest boy on my father’s side, and I am the youngest boy of the second to youngest girl on my mother’s. (Got that?) And so I know that these facts of my birth order make my numeric age a bit deceiving since I’ve got siblings and first cousins anywhere from a dozen to thirty years older than I am—I’ve often been surrounded by and have identified best with people who were much older than I.
I like to say that ‘my genes are older than I look’, if that makes any sense—or that I’m a ‘young dinosaur’, a moniker given me by a friend some time ago.
Nonetheless the facts I’ve listed so far might help illustrate to you how these things can help us make sense of ourselves.
Given what I’ve just shared with you about my story, for example, you might understand why I might sometimes feel as if I’m living in the wrong time period (too modern), or even in the wrong part of the world. Or why I might identify very well with people almost twice my age at times, or why those my own age escape me sometimes.
And your own facts will help you do the same.
Some more examples…
I know that my family is Catholic.
And not just Catholic, but quite literally, Roman Catholic.
Try as I might have in the past to ignore or disregard that fact, it seems to have always come back to me somehow and to have become relevant to me in some intangible way in my life. Why?
I know that there are medical conditions which run in my family for generations in both countries.
As a younger man, these seemed almost completely irrelevant to me since I was young and strong and had boundless energy to compensate for them. Now, as I enter early middle age, my genes are talking to me in this way too, as I am once again faced with whatever issues rise to the surface from deep within my DNA code.
I know that there are certain temperaments that seem to run in my family as far back as we know about. As a psychiatrist I have particular interest in these aspects of what makes me who I am and what makes you who you are.
For example, if you need a professional worrier or ‘fixer’ for you, I’m your man—it’s just part of my inborn temperament, as it is in the temperaments of many of my colleagues in the healthcare fields, as well as those in the clergy, law enforcement, education, and the military.
But I am always on guard for any aspects of my inborn temperament which might be counterproductive or even destructive to me, as you must be about yours as well.
I know that my genes were tuned partly towards city life and partly towards the country, my mother’s family being from the former, my father’s from the latter.
Suburbs have always felt a little foreign to me (I live in one now), and with this knowledge it’s completely understandable to me why that is—I could feel VERY comfortable on a big front porch sipping lemonade with friends and family (or maybe that should be ‘lemoncello’ I suppose); but I can also feel extremely at home living in an apartment in a big city and going downstairs to walk over to the local café for some coffee and conversation with strangers or to do some reading.
I know that for me—like for many of you—wars, poverty, and personal tragedies have left a shadow of trauma somewhere way back in my pedigree. The impact of these historic family traumas can and do have strong implications for us and for future generations—ones that we are often unaware of consciously—things like generalized anxiety, hypervigilance and worry, and even irritability or sadness when things outwardly look fine and tranquil in our own lives today.
I know that academia and learning have always appealed to me, carrying the genes of my mathematician paternal grandfather in my fiber.
I also know that I have a passionate heart which can run counter to those very same interests, passed down to me from my other grandfather, the one who led a VERY colorful life, to put it politely, during the early and middle parts of the last century in Italy.
I know I have genes of priests in me.
I know I have genes of court jesters in me.
I know I have athletic genes that beg for the outdoors and a heart-pounding good sweat.
I know I have bookish genes that beg for my leather reading chair and a quiet, dimly lit corner to read and to study in.
I know I have anxiety genes somewhere in there and maybe a touch of some depressive ones in the mix as well.
I don’t happen to have particularly addictive genes, but I’m learning more and more about what it means to have them from those that do.
So what about YOU?
What would happen if you had a way to go back in time and place to where YOUR genetics were originally from?
You might find yourself a suburbanite somewhere—or as close to one as might have ever have existed—living in a kind of compound or village with houses within walking distance from one another, filled with relatives and close family friends and allies.
Or maybe you’d be a wanderer, most comfortable not knowing where you’d be sleeping tomorrow night or what and with whom you’d be eating.
Maybe you’d be a warrior, full of energy, decisiveness, and courage, fighting for what was right and defending the defenseless.
Maybe you’d be curing the sick or healing their souls.
Or perhaps you’d be something that might surprise you in a frightening way or in a way that you’d not be particularly proud or that would confuse you.
Whatever the case may be for each of us, I think it is both useful and important to try to learn as much as possible not only about who we are today in our lives, but also about who we were meant to be by our particular genetic makeup, social, and family histories among other things.
That way, when we are feeling out of sorts—which we all do sometimes, even YOU if you’ll admit it!—when we are suffering somehow or feeling strangely unhappy or unsatisfied with whatever or wherever we might be; when we are confused by the gap we might feel between our lives and our drives—maybe, just maybe, we can find some solace and perspective if we look back far and wide enough with deliberate observation and study.
And maybe we can begin to understand ourselves better and with more compassion.
Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.
Author, Don’t Get Married! (Unless You Understand A Few Things First)
Cobwebs and Ugly Wallpaper