Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Is It Me, Or Is It a Symbol?

An acquaintance recently asked me what I stand for.

I can’t even put a second sentence into that paragraph; it’s already too densely packed with implications. Let’s start with a few basics:

I have perceived over the years that this question, and others like it, usually have a subtext along these lines: “I have strong political and/or philosophical and/or religious convictions that are central guideposts in my life. These convictions help me to make decisions of all kinds and represent certain ‘lines in the sand’ that I will not cross. Furthermore, I do not sense that you possess the same value system and I am asking you this in order to challenge you and attempt to confirm my suspicions about your character and/or morality. In fact, I might even be able to offer you some sound guidance if you’re ready to hear it.”

It is of course possible that someone may ask what a person stands for out of pure curiosity, as an attempt to get to know them better. Yeah, it’s possible, but it’s rarely the case.

So how do I answer such a question? There’s no single answer; it depends on who’s doing the asking and what I think they’re looking for. I might respond with a smile and a flippant response – “What do I stand for? Well, I stand for old people on the bus and I stand for judges entering a courtroom.”

For the most part, though, I can’t help but resent the implications of such a question. It’s really on a par with questions like, “Have you stopped beating your children?” in that it makes a set of assumptions without inviting debate or even verification.

I “stand for” something? No. It is more accurate to state that I “am” something. I “do” things. To paraphrase the Elephant Man, I am not merely a symbol; I am a human being. Suppose I were to say – or my questioner were to say – “I stand for patriotism” or “I stand for America” or “I stand for Christian values” – or any of countless other ideals. Well my friend, I don’t care if you’re Abe Frickin’ Lincoln – you don’t stand for any of those things. You DO things. Don’t tell me what you stand for; tell me what you DO. Better yet, tell YOURSELF what you do and maybe you’ll realize that you need to come up with a different answer as to what you stand for.

Maybe you’re a loving parent. A devoted spouse. A tireless volunteer for charitable causes. A hard worker and a good provider. Maybe you’re an artisan or skilled tradesperson who takes great pride in their work. A lot of people would consider these to be laudable achievements. But these identities are not required to “stand for” anything. They comprise tangible attributes that stand on their own and do not require the artificial overlay of claiming that they stand for some higher ideal.

I am sometimes left wondering whether the unconscious goal of these questioners is to validate their own choices by trying to elevate the status of their own achievements. If that’s the case, then their questions have nothing at all to do with me.

It is revealing that I have never been asked such a question by someone who knew me reasonably well. People who are close to me develop a sense of who I am and what is important to me. Such questions are invariably asked of me by people who know me slightly, but upon whom I’ve made some sort of impression.

The closest I can come to summing it all up is this: Don’t ask me what I stand for and don’t tell me what you stand for. If you’re all hung up on this whole “standing for” business, SHOW me what you stand for by the example of your own life. And as we come to know one another better, maybe you can decide for yourself what I stand for. But don’t expect me to get on board with all of it, since I reject the very premise upon which the question is asked.

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