Now that I’m dead, I want to tell you a few things.
I know it’s hard to be twenty-four. I remember. Harder now, maybe, than when I was then. It seems like adolescence is prolonged more and more all the time.
When we talked — when I was alive — you often expressed confusion to me about who you are. Who you are really, underneath, and how to figure it out and what to do with it. “Who shall I be? What shall I do?”
Nephew, it took me a long time to figure this out. Way too long. I wish I could hand you this knowledge in a way that would be convincing, but I also remember that at twenty-four I thought my situation was different, and old people didn’t know what it was like, et cetera. You’re an intelligent young man. I hope you get to this a lot younger than I did, because it makes life choices a lot simpler.
These are things that do not define your identity: what others think of you. What you own. Your education or lack of it. Your interests. What you think of others. Even what you think of yourself. Maybe especially that.
What decides, irrevocably, who you are is simply what you DO. Every action you take (or don’t take), every time you walk one way instead of another, every time you do or don’t say something hurtful, something kind: that is who you are. If you cheat on your wife, you are not a misunderstood man with unfulfilled passions. That’s what you feel, how you’d like to define yourself. Who you are is simply a man who cheats on his wife (and makes excuses for it).
If you give to charity, or work for it, you are charitable. If you work hard at your job, you are a hard worker. It doesn’t matter so much why you do these things. Why does not define you, either (though it counts for something, always). What defines you.
If you commit crimes, you are a criminal. Justification or not, there it is.
If you sing, or play the cello, or join a band, you are a musician. If you don’t create music in any way, you’re not.
If you make art, you are an artist. Taking art classes or hanging out with artists and wanting to be seen as an artist doesn’t count. This is also true of writing and being a writer.
Defining yourself in any of those ways without the requisite action is a pose, and you are a poseur. And you’ll know it, and it will make you feel like hell, and fake, and further confuse your sense of identity.
Not wanting to define yourself by whatever it is you’re choosing to do is an excellent sign you should stop doing it, or at least figure out why you don’t want to be that.
That’s it, baby. It’s very easy to figure out who you are. Just look at what you choose to do. It’s also entirely within your power to define yourself, and that at least is an unadorned blessing.
I love you, my dear young man. May you find what you need, and may you have happiness and safety and peace.