Last night I met an intelligent and charming French girl. The conversation inevitably drifted to a stimulating exchange on personal identity and existentialism. The mental afterglow compels me to write on the topic.
When we ask “who am I?”, what are we actually saying? As we consider who we can become, what are some of the hidden assumptions that might hinder finding a content identity? Here are some things to consider.
We are not limited to one identity.
Society often packages discrete identities that it then promotes to its youth. In American high schools, you’ll often find well-defined and non-overlapping categories of identity such as jocks, geeks, preppies, dweebs, nerds and druggies. Youthful yearning for simplicity, as well as peer pressure, compels most students to choose one from among the many choices. However, as we explore life and develop competencies, the demarcation between identities blurs, and many of us learn to live several genuine, yet diverse identities without experiencing existential discomfort.
However, someone who is successfully living diverse identities may experience surprise and disapproval from others who have not yet learned to explore multiple dimensions of identity. Let me make this more tangible by listing a few identities I have lived or now comfortably live.
- Philosophical Blogger. Perhaps many of this blog’s readers know only this side of me. Don’t tell my party friends I enjoy philosophical discourse lest it destroy my playboy image.
- Computer Programmer. I can be as geeky as any other black-clad composer of code. I worked a year as a programmer in Tokyo.
- University Professor. I’m known as a rather demanding professor at my university in Tokyo. My white shirt and tie I wear quite comfortably now.
- Dancing Fool. I love to dance. I can’t help it. Once a week I try to go to a club where I’ll not bump into any friends and just dance.
- Country Boy. I used to milk cows, tend pigs, break horses and buck hay, and had the biceps to prove it. I still wear my cowboy boots from time to time.
- Mexican Fútbol Player. I lived in the mountains of Mexico 6 months, speak Spanish and was the only white boy on a Mexican soccer team for several years.
- Father. I have 3 great kids, all in university now. Being a father is tremendously satisfying, and daily warms my heart. Some find incongruity between this and my own “childish” activities.
- Urban Party Boy. I currently organize expat parties here in Tokyo, and commonly play Cupid. Many of my friends in this circle assume that I am either an artist or a playboy.
- Musician. Though I have not been doing much recently, I used to teach piano and play publicly on occasion.
- Eccentric. Some think I’m rather strange and unapproachable, and this is often true, especially when I’m philosophizing. Yet this identity I also enjoy.
- Artist. I’ve had 3 exhibits here in Tokyo, and tend to gravitate towards those with an artistic bent. My fashion tends to reflect my more artistic side it seems.
- List Creator. ;)
A monochromatic identity is rather boring in my opinion. Life it too short to waste it on one identity, and too long not to encounter many opportunities to adopt new identities. Ignore the impulse to adopt an identity that is too neatly packaged by society. Define yourself. This requires a bit more introspection, but yields great satisfaction.
Identity should not feel obligatory.
Happiness is most important. Accommodating the explicit or implicit demands of peers most often leads to a compromised identity diminished by existential angst. The responsibility of understanding yourself is yours alone. Carefully assess your desires and potential, then decide without the influence of others what to become.
In assessing your desires, you’ll be tempted to assume simplistic social definitions that have been too often co-opted by commercial agendas. The Lamborghini you bought last month may feel surprisingly less fulfilling than what the sheen of the ad had promised. I’d like to suggest that the large majority of pleasures fall far outside the scope of money. However, money is but one of many wrongly valued things in life. Others may include panacean expectations wrongly tied to childbirth, marriage, career and fame. While there is no need to add to the many cautionary tales of bloated expectations related to these desires, you might note the number of individuals that have not paid heed to these tales.
In assessing your potential, keep in mind that the most debilitating of myths for identity is that people cannot change their core personality. As long as this belief is entrenched in your psyche, it will predictably remain true. It is extremely difficult to visualize who you will be from the perspective of who you are.
Interestingly, humans feels guilty when trying on a new identity. It does not feel morally right. We feel like liars. We feel as if we are impostors. And in a real sense we are! However, this guilt is unwarranted. Every cloak of new identity first feels uncomfortably fake. Then, after several wearings and washings, the cloak becomes a form-fitting garment of warm social identity.
So don’t be afraid to toss out that old grungy tee-shirt of identity. Ignore the comments of your peers and your own discomfort, and don that new flowered shirt with confidence and see what identity emerges. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
A new identity begins as a performance.
Let me elaborate on the process of forming a new identity. The first few performances will probably be disconcerting. You’ll have both the condemnation of peers who don’t want you to change, and your own feeling of guilt from “lying” about who you are. Ignore these. Ignores these until the performance is so instinctive, that even your best friends cannot accuse you of “being something you’re not”.
The phrase “You’re trying to be something you’re not” is only uttered by individuals who have a monochromatic identity. You might consider making new friends if you hear this frequently uttered in your current social circles. Becoming someone you’re currently not is one of the supreme joys of life! Once you are beyond the condemnation of your peers and yourself, there are enormous possibilities!
As one tangible example, when I moved at age 35 from the countryside to attend a major university, I told myself that I was no longer the shy boy I had been. I vowed to speak with one new girl everyday. On Day One, with fear and trembling, I approached an attractive girl sitting by herself and sheepishly introduced myself. She became one of my best friends. Within 6 months, I had a more than sufficient collection of friends and romantic interests, and developed a reputation as a extrovert. Now I’ve nearly forgotten how to be shy.
Reinvent your self regularly. Live many lives. And at the end of these lives, you’ll be able to say unequivocally, “I lived!”