Thinking about identity

I feel tension when I think about the concept of identity. I leverage a bit of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) talk when I concede to the idea that multiple things can be true at the same time.

As a related aside, how does that statement make you feel? How comfortable are you with the idea that two seemingly opposing forces are BOTH true? It took me a long while to wrap my head around the concept, and if I am being extremely candid (because why not), I still struggle to swallow DIALECTICAL-NESS with extreme pride. Why is this so hard for me to accept? I think it has something to do with the rigidity of my brain—throwing away the absolute-ism and permanence of TRUTH…that is a battle that I remind myself of daily.

Back to the main idea of this emerging essay—identity. What is identity? I imagine there are many definitions (written by “scholars” of sorts over the decades), but when I hear the term identity I think about, to be a bit cheesy, the end of a Bad Bunny Song, Quien Tu Eres?, where he repeats a few times: “WHO ARE YOU?”

WHO ARE YOU?

So WHO ARE YOU?

During a job interview or when you meet someone for coffee (note: I do not drink coffee, but imagine for a second we live in a fantasy land of sorts where I am drinking coffee), and it is a relatively blind introduction (perhaps you met via email), and they ask you, tell me a bit about yourself…what do you say? What details do you start with? Which do you leave out? Is it intentional? Where do your above choices come from? In other words, how do you choose where to start? And where to finish? WHO ARE YOU?

This does not have to be an interpersonal/external exercise.

When you wake up in the morning and your head is still resting on the pillow, you may _think_ to yourself something about yourself. What is the story you are telling yourself? What type of person are you? What type of person do you want to be? What is your story? What are your values? What are you thinking about yourself? Who are you?

Who are you—as innocent as it seems—is not a particularly straightforward question. Identity is closely related with a number of other philosophical concepts, and frankly ideas that come up in your day to day life around acceptance, status, community, validation, respect, goals, and more.

But again, before I wander, WHO ARE YOU?

Why is this so hard for us to answer. How is it the case that we live on this earth—in my case for 2+ decades now, and even answering the question is not so straightforward. WHY?

I try to make the excuse, well, in answering the question for others—in other words if someone is asking me WHO ARE YOU—I would try to mentalize (i.e. think about what the other person is thinking about) the question behind the question. What are they getting at? What is their objective? What is my objective? Which answer is the most likely to achieve said objectives. (Note this approach of mentalizing, at least in my experience, can lead to a common topic of this blog: OVERTHINKING. So be careful if you were to be trying to guess what is going on in another person’s brain. I am not going to say you will never do that—most people are doing that all the time (often even subconsciously judging the world around them).

But I will not let myself make the above excuse because the situation right now—the example of WHO ARE YOU—is not being prompted by anyone else. It is me asking me.

Even so, the brain often resorts to thinking about external mechanisms of establishing identity.

Well, then, why is this so difficult? What am I afraid of?

In answering this question, how do you triangulate the appropriate answer? Have you thought about the question before?

Some people default to some facts: My name is X (given to you by your parents). I was born in Y (decided by my parents). I am Z years old (a factor of when your parents had you).

You can learn a lot just by looking at this answer.

  • You can analyze X, Y, and Z and find similarities perhaps.
  • The person is sticking to facts that they did not control.

Other people, and you find this often, answer the WHO ARE YOU prompt by sharing their profession. Note that asking who someone is does not imply you care about their profession. It just so happens that, at least in modern society, in many of the cultures and subgroups I sit in, the default reading of WHO ARE YOU is really WHAT DO YOU DO FOR WORK? I wonder why this is. I try to imagine some interpersonal dynamics between humans as similar to a group of apes or animals. Instead of slinging mud at one another, we are gaining status by flexing our relative leaderboard positions. And a ~normalized/fast way of gaining ~credibility is to identify via your RANKING (which correlates closely to your JOB or SCHOOL).

But surely there are other ways we rank our identity. We look a certain way. We dress a certain way. Our bodies are shaped a particular way. We possess particular skills. We talk a certain way. We tell stories a certain way. We have personalities. We ARE a certain way. These all feed into the ranking of sorts.

BUT PAUSE. WHY are we answering WHO ARE YOU by starting with an EXTERNAL LEADERBOARD. Why is WHO ARE YOU? not just a question of WHO ARE YOU?

I think it likely has to do with identity being tightly coupled with BELONGING. And belonging being a ~natural~ craving of humans; we do not want to create an identity that is not worthy of belonging into a status that we respect and admire. Even the renegades, the people who refuse to fit into the status quo, well, they belong in the cohort of renegades, and likely find solace IN NOT FITTING IN with the normies.

The problem (well perhaps many) with externalized benchmarks and descriptions of identity is that they are not sustainable nor enduring. I have been reading a lot of history lately, largely the history of invention/progress/growth, and I have been continually surprised to see a TON OF NAMES I DO NOT KNOW. The people who invented FOUNDATIONAL PIECES OF SOCIETY are totally unremembered by AVERAGE AND EVEN CURIOUS PEOPLE OF TODAY.

How much have you thought about this? How much have you thought about the idea that it is EXTREMELY UNLIKELY for anyone to remember you 300 years from now.

Do you know your great-great-great-grandparents? Do you know their story? Do you know their hardship and what they did to make you YOU.

This is where it gets extremely powerful. Do you know your great-grandparents? What about their stories?

What about your parents? How well do you really understand their lives? Do you know what high school was like for them? What about their biggest heartbreak? Their biggest obstacle?

The answer is very unlikely to be yes. It is extremely unlikely that IDENTITY ENDURES, especially as time persists into the hundreds of years. It is also extremely unlikely that, while you are alive, ANYONE understands the WHOLENESS of your identity to the degree that will make you extremely comfortable.

Now how does that make you feel?

Now think about this—even if you were responsible for inventing one of the most important inventions in the history of modern civilization, let’s say, a recent favorite of mine: The Stirrup (yes, the thing you put on a horse, which is responsible for a lot of growth in the medieval ages, also war), WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WILL BE REMEMBERED BY?

The answer…as blunt as it is…is that you will not be remembered for more than a few hundred years. No one reading this essay knows the inventor of the Stirrup. I do not either, and I just read a book about it and fifty pages dedicated to trying to triangulate the founder. But still—will you be remembered for it?

Now even while you are alive, let’s say your identity is in founding a large company or running a big organization. These are PIECES OF YOUR IDENTITY but they are not the whole thing. We know this because, well, they are not permanent. If you are the organization leader, and then one day you come into the office and scream at everyone. HOW DOES THAT IMPACT YOUR IDENTITY. You still lead the organization (at least for now) but the reality is that your identity has then changed.

Recognizing that your identity is fragile—you can be the wealthiest person on earth and the most *successful person on earth* and see it ALL GO AWAY and yet you will still be a human being—that is a powerful concept to me. We focus so much on BUILDING UP OUR IDENTITY and confuse fragility with permanence. We think that our identity can be etched in stone, but that is not true.

There are no rigid parts of life. That is an absolute statement that I stand by. You could fly to Bali tomorrow. You could get a tattoo. You could shave your head. You could quit your job. You could insult your friend. You can love your friend. You can read a book. You can go play ping pong.

YOU IS NOT PERMANENT.

The only permanent thing about identity is that YOU play a role in it. You—the human being CAPABLE OF MAKING CHOICES AND EXPERIENCING EMOTIONS.

So perhaps that is the core? You can wear all these fancy clothes and have big houses but at the end of the day, at your core, YOU ARE A HUMAN CAPABLE OF EMOTIONS.

I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE. That is who I am. I feel love, curiosity, excitement, sadness, and frustration. I get angry. I get happy. And I use tools—some physical and some emotional—to deal with (or not deal with) these experiences.

Identity being an impermanent artifact is the most important idea in this essay. Feynman talks about this in the pursuit of science—that discoveries, even laws of physics, are not permanent in the capacity that you must always maintain doubt. Maintaining flexibility in identity—stopping the idea that you CANNOT BECOME THIS THING OR YOU CANNOT BE THAT TYPE OF PERSON—and experiencing life to the max (as per your definition); that is powerful.

This is not to say you cannot be intentional. This is not to say you cannot actively and proactively seek a change to your identity. It is to say though that it is worth recognizing that any ATTRIBUTE OF YOUR IDENTITY may be impermanent. Forget may be—it is.

Because the reality…the harsh, true, reality…is that NO ONE WILL REMEMBER the wholeness of YOUR IDENTITY IN 1000 YEARS.

No matter what.

They _may_ remember your name. They _may_ remember a thing you did or a quality you showed. But they won’t know you. And ACCEPTING THAT CONCEPT such that you are propelled to maximize the power of today.

That is the present.

Reading this back quickly—it went a bit fluffier than I would like. I could imagine a reader—me as a reader—thinking wow this guy went to one or two therapy sessions and is regurgitating thoughts. Well, the reality (as it often is) is a bit more complicated. I have been to many more than two therapy sessions AND this is actually not an idea I discussed there really in any capacity. The concepts above are things I have been thinking about as I have been reading many books (across history and fiction) that touch on the concept of Identity. In reading these books, I have confronted the reality that answering the question of WHO ARE YOU? is not something I have felt confident in doing. I have made a number of changes to my life lately—both professionally and personally—and this has led me to begin to question WHO AM I?

I have no confidence in answering it right now with words other than—I am figuring that out.


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