“Who are you?” When somebody asked me this question several years ago, I didn’t know how to answer. Mostly because I hadn’t met them before and I didn’t know what the hell they even meant by the question; but even if I did know, I still don’t think I could have answered it. I think the only reasonable response would have been “a lot of things.”
Summing up a human being is no easy task. It may even be impossible. Most of us don’t have the feintest clue of who we are. Sometimes we think we do, then something happens. We do something we thought the person we were couldn’t possibly do, and we realize once again how little we know. But, we continue on our endless journey to find something. Something we can latch on to and say, “that’s me.” Sometimes we latch too hard. Sometimes we hang on too long, unable to let go. And sometimes, we can’t find anything to latch on to at all.
So, what are our options? What can we identify as/with? Well, the answer is pretty much anything. Race, religion, gender, sexuality, temperament, height, interest, intelligence, creativity, sock elasticity… You get the point. There is no shortage of options, and each option carries its own intrigue. Some tell us more about a person than others. Some don’t tell us anything at all. But none of them tell us everything.
As useful as identity can be, the adherence to a unilateral identity has proven catastrophic. The most glaring example can be found in the ugly forming of white supremacist groups. What do these groups have in common? One thing: being white. Well, that and hatred, though it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone who joins these groups is already hateful. It’s more likely that the group fosters a culture of hate. More importantly, we have to ask why somebody would join a group like this in the first place. Why would anyone join any group at all? The answer seems to lie in the search for an identity.
People searching for an identity and people who don’t want to face their true identity are often attracted to one that’s already established. It’s much easier to latch on to something already there than to create something new. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s recognizable. If I say “I’m white,” it doesn’t take much thought or effort, and everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say it. But it tells you almost nothing about me. Sure, my ancestors probably lived in a cold and cloudy environment, I more than likely have hairy legs, and there’s an above average chance I enjoy watching The Office. But it doesn’t tell you about me, the person. It doesn’t tell you how I think, what I’m good at, or what I’m afraid of. It doesn’t tell you where my morals lie, if I’m a decent human, or if I’m a walking trash bag.
This is true for almost any identifying characteristic. Our race, our gender, our sexuality; these things are all part of us, but they aren’t us, entirely. There’s more to a person than that. Yet, so many of us, especially when we’re young, are susceptible to the allure of a discernable identity. We find something that allows us to fit in; to feel like we’re a part of something. Something that makes us say “Yes! That’s me, and I’m proud.” And we run with it. We run with it until we become the identity, and the identity becomes us. We run with it until we can’t even discern between identity and humanity. Until we’re at war. My identity against yours.
We’ll do anything to protect the identity we’ve chosen to adhere to. If we relinquish our identity now, it’s a betrayal. A betrayal to ourselves, and a betrayal to everyone who identifies the same way. So, we fight it out to the death; because in a war, somebody has to win.
So, how do we avoid this? It’s no simple task, and I don’t have a simple answer. But I can try and find a place to start.
First, it’s important to understand we’re all different, and that’s what makes us beautiful. It also makes us immensely complicated, and that’s okay. It’s easy to feel like nobody else could ever understand us, because they can’t. Accepting that nobody will ever truly understand what it’s like to be you seems like a good place to start.
We can understand parts of each other. We can join groups and engage with people who have something in common with us, and we can relate to that. But nobody will ever wake up in the morning and be you. Nobody will ever understand everything you are, all at once. This is okay. It makes the world interesting. It allows us to learn something, if we’re willing to listen.
Listening and engaging with people who are different than us is paramount to a healthy identity. It’s comforting to find people who share some of our characteristics or interests. It helps validate our existence, and helps us feel less alone. But, if that’s all we engage with, we run the risk of living life with blinders on, and we soon forget that our differences are what make us interesting and valuable.
By engaging with people who are different than us and people who we disagree with, we are quickly reminded that our identity doesn’t take precedence over somebody else’s just because it’s ours. Genuinely listening to their story will help us understand that although we may look different, think different, and choose different, we often feel similar and want the same thing: to be heard. Whatever we are, we want it to be okay we are exactly that.
A healthy identity is one in which we are comfortable with. In order to be comfortable in our identities, we have to accept that they’re infinitely complicated, multi-layered, and ever-changing. It’s important to realize our identity is really a multitude of identities. We can be one thing and also another. We can be mostly one thing one day and mostly the opposite the next. We can be everything and nothing all at once.
Everything and nothing all at once can be a hard place to start, so it makes sense to start with our more obvious qualities. But if we start to list everything we are, one thing we can agree on is we’ll be busy for a while. However, If we were to create a never-ending list of everything we are, it would be unreasonable to value everything equally. Some things are more important to us than others, and that’s okay. For instance, it’s more important to me that I’m creative than it is I’m straight. For somebody else, it might be more important to them that they like antique sandals than it is they’re tall.
Try writing down the five most important things about being you. Seriously, do it. When I did this, the first list I came up with was: funny, creative, caring, intelligent, and wise.
I noticed that along with all of these things being positive, none of them would be identifiable to a stranger walking down the street. They’re qualities that are important to me because it takes a little digging to find them. They are qualities that people who have gotten to know me have complimented me on, and that means something. They’re also important because I like them. But, there’s still a lot missing. Even if I write down what I think are the five most important things about me, it still doesn’t come close to a discernable “me.” I mean we haven’t even gotten to… the dark side.
What if you had to write down the five worst things about you? Could you do it? How long would it take? What would it teach you? Well, it turns out it can teach you a lot. I thought it was interesting that it took me longer to list out the negative things about my identity than the positive ones.
People tend to be able to remember negative experiences in their lives more vividly and easily than positive ones. I’m certainly no exception to that. So, why was it more difficult for me to think about my negative qualities? Am I delusional? A raging narcissist? A complete and utter ass? No, none of those things. Though if I were one of those things I guess I wouldn’t really know. If I was delusional I definitely wouldn’t know. Anyways, the exercise showed that my negative qualities were less accessible than my positive ones. But, I found thinking about them and writing down my negative qualities was a lot more useful than writing down positive ones.
The negative parts of my identity have more room to improve than the positive ones, so understanding what they are is a good first step towards self-improvement and a healthy identity. Honestly evaluating the parts of me which aren’t so great also helps me better understand that what I am is incomplete; that those parts of me which are “important” are really just the parts I like.
Factoring in the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my identity also helps me understand humanity. It helps me further grasp the intricate layers of being. It helps me understand that my true identity isn’t easy to face, and that everyone has to face their own identity. It helps me understand that my identity can’t be encapsulated in a word, or five words, or 10,000 words. It can’t be pinpointed or narrowed into a definable hole. But, whatever it is, it can change. It can get stronger or more interesting. Most importantly, it’s up to me to be honest about it and to admit I am some things and not others, and that there’s still a lot to learn.