April 26, 1999
Thinking About Which I Am
"Which Are You?" is a poem by an anonymous author that uses a metaphor to get the reader to think about what type of person he or she is. The author compares the way a person lives his life to the workers involved in tearing down a building, and also to workers who build.
In the first stanza, the speaker is watching a group of men tear a building down. He asks the foreman of the site if the men wrecking the building are skilled. In other words, are they the same type of men he would hire to build a building, because building requires much more expertise than tearing one down. The foreman answers no, and says the men are common labor, which means they do not have the special skills necessary to build a structure. He says they can wreck in a day or two what it takes others a year to build.
The second stanza contains the metaphor. Literally, the first stanza is about workers who either demolish a building or build one up. Of course, there is nothing wrong with anyone who does either job. Good, honest work of any kind is respectful. Both are necessary jobs, as we saw when the old gym was torn down and then built anew. The second stanza speaks figuratively, and compares building up and tearing down to the things a person does in life.
The speaker thinks to himself, "Which of these roles have I tried to play?" (12). When he says roles, he means the things he has done in his life. In life, we have several roles (as Jacques cynically notes in his seven ages of man soliloquy). We go to school, we play on athletic teams, we have families. In each part of our lives, we have a different role. The speaker has obviously played many different roles in his life; the possibilities are endless.
Every person in life has different roles, and yet this poem appeals to everyone. This is because no matter what we do we can either be the type of person who builds things up or tears things down. The speaker asks himself if he is like the builder, who works with care, follows a plan, and does the best he can. Or, is he a wrecker, who tears down in a day or two what took others years to build.
In life, the speaker wonders if he has been the type of person who accomplishes things and makes things better for himself and others. Do people like to be around him? Or are they afraid of being knocked down like buildings. When he worked on teams or in groups did he help the team accomplish something? Or did he tear the work of others down? Just like in the example of a building, a person can figuratively tear down in a day what others took years to do.
Think about your self-esteem. Self-esteem can be a fragile thing. Perhaps yours has taken years to build up. Maybe you worked extra hard to become a better soccer player, musician, or artist. It probably took you years of practice, and Ill bet there is something in life you feel really good about. Yet, how often have you had your self-esteem knocked down in seconds by the careless, hurtful comments of another person? Or, have you ever knocked someone down with words?
I really think that is the point the author is trying to make. Hes not asking if he literally tears things down, he is asking if he figuratively tears down other people. And that is one thing I really like about this poem. He is asking about himself; he is not preaching to others. In order for someone to get something out of this poem, he or she has to think. The author does not tell how to live life. Instead, he has written a poem which must be thought about. Its a poem that causes a person to evaluate his or her life and make changes which will, hopefully, lead to improvement.