By Joseph Cox
Definitions are endlessly interesting to me because so few of us seem to examine what they really are. In modern society, we love to have opinions on any concept we can begin to grasp. Politics, the news, science, religion, abortion, drugs, welfare, and student loans are all things being debated everyday by people with minimal education to people with doctoral degrees, yet we pay such little attention to articulating our definitions before we bother to debate. We take such stupendous amounts of information for granted that we often wind up accepting terms that we never agreed to, being swooned by people we trusted, and agreeing with statements we have never fully grasped. I hope to elaborate more on the philosophical and political implications of our society’s specificity problem, but for now, in the spirit of finals week, I’ll focus on just one application of definition: what defines you?
As a college student, I’ve been hit with that rusty train on numerous occasions. I refer to the defining task as rusty because that’s what the question feels like when it’s asked, and what the advice sounds like when it’s given. Being asked to define myself is like a rusted pile of metal painfully screeching its way through my brain in a pattern I’ve seen a thousand times before. I’m always just waiting for the train to pass. Biding my time before I finally explode to explain all the reasons bothering to define myself is a worthless endeavor for two reasons. One, the definition should have relevance to only me, and secondly, the act of defining isn’t permanent. The definitions of people, as with the definitions of words, are flexible objects that change with the flow of life. Well, here’s the explosion of my reasoning.
What I define myself as, should I choose to apply such a strange limitation to myself, is relevant only to me. Applications, tests, and interviews are all designed to delve into some strange, falsely universal, method of uncovering who we are as people. Finals week presents no better time to point out the uselessness of tests in defining who someone is. Around me every day are future scientists, communicators, teachers, and parents of differing cultures, beliefs, religions, and experiences, yet I observe most us, myself included, worrying about things that we allow to define us. The effects of test scores have little practical implications in our lives beyond the powers we grant them. Say I’d like to be a scientist. What about failing all 5 of my exams would stop me from achieving that goal? Sure, it would be preferable that I succeed now, but my future success isn’t entirely dependent on the scores I receive currently. My point here is simple. In the scientist scenario, I’ve assigned a definition to myself: I’m a future scientist. Such a construction was, hopefully, created entirely by me for my own sake, yet here I’ve been all week worrying that someone might take that definition away from me. The fear of test scores does not come down to a mere fear of failure, but to a fear that something might strip away the definitions we’ve afforded ourselves. Though, the truth is much more frighteningly beautiful: the only thing that can strip away that definition is whatever assigned it. Test scores can’t touch your dreams, institutions have, at best, limited power over you, and the only person that defines anything in your life is you. Feeling stressed? Change your definition of success. Don’t want to change your standards for success? Better define the requirements you must meet to reach such success. Test scores have only the powers that you grant them, so define the scores however you so choose.
Furthermore, perhaps the most overlooked point of defining oneself, is that definitions of all kinds are infinitely flexible. Few people ever stop to consider how words themselves come to be defined. Take how the word ‘red’ came to be defined for example. How did that color come to be established? It’s not as if there was some objective concept of the word before humans came along. Sure, the color red may or may not exist independent of our perceptions, that’s a whole other debate, but the word ‘red’ certainly doesn’t exist beyond the human use of it. Red, therefore, was created because of a lexicographer, or the equivalent of one at the time, who decided that’s what the color should be called, and that’s how every definition has been created. Meaning assignment is an empirical science that fluctuates with changes in human society. Words change along with the human usage of them, as will the definition of one’s own self change with the continuation of time. In English, my argument against exam worries, as well as defining people in general, is simple: who cares?
The definitions of people are relative, meaning that they’ll change with the circumstances that surround them. Today, you may be defined by a couple of letters on a piece of paper accompanied by a percentile ranking. Tomorrow, you’ll be defined by how funny your pun was on snapchat, how dank your Instagram post was, how attractive your smile is, or by one of indefinitely many other variables. In ten years, you’ll be defined by whatever the heck it is you’re doing with your life. The point is simple: defining yourself is a task made for you and by you. Don’t let anyone or anything, especially an exam, take away that privilege. The test scores don’t define you; you define you if that’s what you wish to do.