Identity is everywhere. Identity theft, identity politics, job applications, and social media profiles confront us at every turn. We are constantly being commanded to prove our identity, not only formally, as in logging on to our bank accounts, but socially, in order to justify our existence, our beliefs and our values.
Technology has created new challenges in the way we talk about, understand and shape our identity. AI is no longer a piece of science fiction, and evidence grows regarding websites, social media trolls and other online entities that successfully manipulate, divide and interfere with social discourse, information and opinion.
We are woefully easy targets.
Merriam-Webster online defines identity as “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” The online Free Dictionary says identity is “the set of characteristics by which a person or thing is definitively recognizable or known; the awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persisting entity.”
Objective reality. The term objective means “(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” (Oxford Dictionary; emphasis mine.) This means a purple-polka-dotted snake cannot claim the identity of a green-striped zebra, no matter how indignantly and vociferously it insists it feels like one. Personality disorders are recognized as such because those who suffer from them are not always dealing with objective reality. A purple-polka-dotted snake who wants to be a green-striped zebra is divided tragically from itself and others, not only other purple-polka-dotted snakes, but all others, because it persists in trying to behave and be accepted as something it’s not, ultimately self-destructing.
I’ve written before about labels, denial, arguing with what is and pseudo self, all of which ideas intersect with identity. Have you watched a potter at work with clay on a wheel? As they shape a vessel, one hand works inside and one outside. Identity is like that. The tribe we’re born into gives us our earliest sense of identity, and we take our cues from them. If our tribe is critical and we feel unaccepted and unloved, we internalize those voices and viewpoints and give them power in our psyche to mold our identity. At the same time, we go out into the world and our schools, jobs, communities, places of worship and other organizations identify us from the outside.
Years ago I worked with a group of gifted and talented middle and high school students as a school librarian. None of them fit in terribly well with their classmates. A young man I was very fond of was quite lonely, as well as being brilliant, and he said one day he was nothing but the “fat boy.” He was sixteen years old, and seemed resigned to carrying the identity of “fat boy” to the end of his life. I told him, entirely sincerely, that I never thought of him as the “fat boy.” He was obese. Obviously, I noticed. But to me he was a funny, interesting, curious, compassionate, vulnerable human being. His weight concerned me because of the social stigma and quality of his health, but I never thought of him as the “fat boy.”
He could see that I was telling him the truth. I haven’t any idea what happened to him or what he’s been doing all these years, but I’ve always hoped he remembered there was an adult in his life who saw beyond the limitations of “fat boy” and recognized other pieces of his identity and potential. I hope he learned at some point that he didn’t have to settle for a life defined by his weight.
Over the years of my lifetime, more and more people seem to never mature past teenage identity. We build websites, profiles and a social media presence, desperately trying to sell a successful identity for attention, true love, power or money. We are so compulsive about taking selfies that we die doing it. There’s an explosion of people seeking plastic surgery in order to match their digitally-altered pictures. We have the technology to alter hair color, eye color and physical characteristics, and we’re saturated with digitally-altered images on media that keep us firmly convinced we’re unattractive and imperfect as we are. At the same time, we socially reinforce and perpetuate ridiculous gender, racial and ethnic roles, limitations and expectations.
Perfect strangers insist on imposing labels on us, or try to bully us into choosing one label over another. It’s an either-or black-and-white world, and new labels proliferate like maggots in road kill, creating ever-increasing lines of division and arenas for conflict.
We are in such a hurry, we’re so overstimulated and anxious to not be left behind and to be validated, we’ve forgotten the simplicity of identity, and we’ve forgotten we don’t owe the world a public explanation or justification of our identity. Having a Facebook or Tinder profile does not constitute an identity. Having feelings and opinions about who we are is not an identity. Our carefully constructed pseudo self is not an identity. Our identity is not maintained and created by what others think, feel or say about us. Identity is not an endpoint, but a journey. Healthy identity is flexible. It adapts and changes as we live our lives. We are not who we wish we were, who we are afraid we are or necessarily who we think we are. We are not exactly who we were yesterday or who we’ll be tomorrow. We’re certainly not necessarily what others tell us we are, or must be, although objective reality always trumps our internal fantasies.
Our identity, like our power, is ours alone. We need not sell it or give it away, and it cannot be stolen from us. On the other hand, we must take responsibility for our own self-sabotage and mental disorders if we seek a healthy identity.
Healthy identity is complex and multi-dimensional. I’ve been daughter, sister, wife and mother, and I’m much more than any of those single roles. I’ve worked several jobs over my lifetime, but I’m more than any of those jobs. I have a physical identity in terms of vital statistics, Caucasian skin, blue eyes and female biology, but none of those markers identify me as completely as the fact that I’m a human being. A healthy identity also accommodates shadows, scars, less-than-useful coping mechanisms and behavior patterns.
My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Tech allows us to create superficial fantasies of bright colors and pleasurable images, but those worlds are empty and brittle, like an enticing piece of candy that melts in a minute on our tongue and leaves nothing but the taste of sugar and artificial flavor. We cannot judge identity by houses, gardens, cars, vacations, pets, children, selfies, clothing, jobs or partners. Our possessions, our pictures and our memorabilia are not our identity. Somewhere, under all that stuff, behind all those pictures of success and happiness, apart from our fear and unwillingness to come to terms with our objective reality and our denial, lies the powerful, complex, fascinating, valuable person we really are, and that person longs to be identified and welcomed into life. That person longs to give and receive love, make a valued contribution and live authentically.
I’m interested in the way people self-define and introduce themselves. It always points to either what we ourselves feel is the largest part of our identity or what we think others will value or connect with most readily. This is what lies beneath every dating profile. What do we imagine prospective partners will be most attracted to? What’s the perfect thing to say which will limit unwanted matches and encourage those we imagine might provide whatever we’re looking for? How can we optimize the algorithm and make it work for us?
Sometimes I walk away from meeting a new person feeling overwhelmed and deafened by all the ways they labeled themselves but with no sense of the real human being I just interacted with. Instead of an easy, exploratory, getting-to-know-one-another conversation, I was bludgeoned with political jargon and identifiers, patronized and gratuitously instructed out of some kind of claimed expertise. It feels aggressive, weak and demanding. This is who I am and you will recognize my status, authority and identity! If you don’t apply one of my proud labels to yourself, you should. All the best people do. In any event, my labels are better than yours.
Our identity is not for others, but for ourselves. We’re the ones who need to know who we are, experience our feelings and monitor our thoughts. We’re the ones in charge of our dignity, our sexuality and our choices. We’re the ones responsible for our own integrity. As my hair greys and my fertility wanes, I become more and more physically invisible in the world. At the same time, I’ve never been as strong, as resilient, as wise and as compassionate as I am now. I’ve never loved so well. I’ve never felt so whole or comfortable in my own skin. I have no social media accounts and no cell phone. I don’t use any kind of apps, dating or otherwise. My identity is strong and dynamic, and it’s not for sale or on display. In fact, I’ve always felt being invisible is a great advantage. People who attract no attention are invariably underestimated and overlooked, especially aging female people.
At the end of the day, a life well lived is about being who we are, objective reality included, because everyone else is taken. Fantasy is fun, but real life is where all the juice is.
My daily crime.
“I look like vanilla pudding so nobody knows that on the inside I am spider soup.”
Andrea Portes, Anatomy of a Misfit
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