What Defines You: What You Think or What You Do?

In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) is acting the part of an outrageous playboy in order to maintain his cover. At the tail end of one escapade, who should appear but Rachel Dawes, a friend from years ago whose admiration he craves. He tries to explain that what she has just witnessed does not represent the real Bruce Wayne.

Rachel devastatingly replies, “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”

Is that true?

I’ve been wrestling with that question lately, and I don’t have an answer.

I think of an older woman I know who is very rough around the edges. She is loud and often rude. In a public place, she is an embarrassment to those she is with.  Several years ago, I stopped hanging out with the group of which both of us were a part just because I couldn’t stand being around her anymore. Recently, I’ve reconnected with the group. She hasn’t changed, but now I realize she has a heart of gold under that crusty exterior. What defines her: the gold or the crust? I tend to think it’s the gold.

I think of another person, now deceased, who was quite prejudiced against black people, but unfailingly polite and friendly to them in person. What defines him: his prejudice or his politeness? Again, I would tend to side with the interior quality.

On the other hand, we’ve all known people who do the right thing for the wrong reason. Maybe they follow a religion that we hold to be false, but it motivates them to do the right thing. In those cases, I side with the exterior: I believe they are good people because of their actions, just as I hope they will allow that I can be a good person even though I don’t believe in their God.

I knew another older person who could be selfish and had a drinking problem. However, I saw him pull through and behave with extreme kindness and forbearance in a very difficult circumstance that went on for years. What defined him? I think what counted was how he acted, not his interior life. In fact, you could say that because he had to work extra-hard to pull through with the right actions, he was a better person than those who have an easy time being selfless.

Later in Batman Begins (and at the end of the clip above), Batman saves Rachel’s life. She asks Batman to reveal his identity. He replies, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do defines me.” We see that his internal character actually does line up with his actions. Many of us are not so consistent.

Perhaps the whole question of what defines us is misguided. Perhaps each of us is a mixture of good and bad, both inside and out, and we should give up trying to categorize, define, or judge anyone, including ourselves.

What do you think?

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