Our first weekly seminar is on the subject of identity. Our prescribed reading is Amin Maalouf’s “Identity”, which focuses on the sometimes violent reactions that result when we feel that our identity is under attack from some quarter.

This has really got me thinking, and in advance of our seminar I would like to share my thoughts with you, in the hope of getting some feedback that might help me to further develop my ideas. The seminar takes place on Sept 10th, and I wonder if it was deliberately calculated to be so close to Sept 11th, the eleventh anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center – surely the most obvious example in recent times of what forces can be unleashed when there is a perceived threat to a cultural identity.

When considering the issue of identity, I wanted to start from what I know, i.e. my own identity.

I have spent more time than most getting to know myself. Finding myself was one of my motivations for wanting to row across oceans, and it was the ideal arena for such a mission, as there is very little else to do when alone on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean.

But I’ve found that the further I go into myself, the less self I find, until my sense of self starts to dissolve altogether. I recall one particular night, in mid-Pacific, when unusually it was calm enough for me to lie out on the deck for a while and gaze up at the stars. I had the strangest combination of feelings, being so insignificant in the presence of such celestial wonder while at the same time feeling so interconnected with the cosmos that I could have been almost omnipresent.

Jill Bolte Taylor brilliantly describes a similar feeling in her wildly popular TED Talk. While a stroke intermittently shut down the logical left hemisphere of her brain, she experienced an intense feeling of oneness with the universe, as the boundary between her “self” and everything else dissolved to create a feeling of spiritual ecstasy.

Jill Bolte Taylor

Part of the trouble is that people confuse what they are with who they are. There was a recent debate in the TED group on LinkedIn, of which I am a member. The question posed was:

“Who am I?” Or have you asked yourself, “What am I?” Is there a difference between “Who” and “What” in regard to yourself? Can we define what it is?

Eileen M replied:

“My daughter was assigned the first question for a school paper, and all that she could come up with was, ‘I am __________________ ___________.’ I told her I thought that said it all, and she ended up with an A. I was relating this story to my younger two children, and I asked them what they would have written. We all ended up generally agreeing that response should be sufficient.

If I ask myself “What am I?”, however, then I could write pages of my roles, what kind of creature I am, from what and who I am descended, what activities or hobbies I enjoy and which help to define me, personality traits, and more.

I see a significant difference because “Who” is my internal, personal identity, and “What” is external or physical things that are not uniquely mine. We are all human, almost any female can be a mother, just about anyone can be a reader or baker or painter or employee or procrastinater or thinker.

Many can be what I am, but no one else can be who I am.”

Well, this is all very beautiful and spiritual, but so what? What does this mean in the real world?

Our sense of identity determines many of our choices

Most of us construct a sense of self, a persona, to create enough structure around ourselves to allow us to function in the every day world, primarily to make decisions. It’s a shortcut. By having a sense of our moral, ethical and cultural frameworks, we don’t have to go back to first principles every time we have to make a decision. As an example, when I am in the supermarket, I know that as an environmentalist I am going to choose this food item over that food item in the supermarket because it is packaged in less plastic, or it is organic, or it is local, or ideally all three. In a world now full of a bewildering range of choices, our sense of identity helps us narrow that range of choices down to manageable numbers.

The problems come when we forget that we have CHOSEN these identities in order to facilitate everyday life, when we start to confuse them with who we actually are, when we identify so closely with our identities (so to speak) that we take it personally when we perceive that one of our identities is under attack.

Again – so what? If we agree with this notion, how can we get everybody in the world to stop taking things so personally? A general raising of consciousness would be great, but it can take a while. A long while.

What do you think? How do you identify yourself? Have you ever felt that a group with which you identify is under attack? What could be done, culturally, legislatively, or otherwise, to ensure that sectors of society do not feel threatened?


  • I would like to chime-in the this online discussion Roz.

    A Verb is who you are. An unlimited, undefined, unlabeled and consistently proven entity in a path on an unmarked, not well lit Journey to the light. With every small step you guide those around you toward awareness and therefore power. There have been others, but your delivery method is yours, completely unique and a captivating story when taken in entirety. Your story much like water, flows.

    What you are is many things. At the grocery store you mentioned above, you are not only an environmental activist. You are also on a strict budget, you are well traveled(for flavors), you now know which are ripe/non ripe, you know which will keep for only a few days(quantities), and know that you may be out of town when it ripens, you don’t want to be seen at a walmart food place, you dress appropriately for the shopping, you don’t buy enough to overload your bike.. etc… (not to be dramatic) But your identity is under all of that. It is all of that and encircles all of those around you, Around you physically, when you say “Hello” to a new friend and or listen to his or her story, That experience changes your identity. Most people support or distance themselves from such interaction. “Call me.” at the end of an alignment meeting and “get the hell away from me, wierdo” muttered between the inner eyeballs if the meeting is a not so pleasant experience. Your identity willing to expand in the primary and contract in protective cocoon(ation) in the event of the latter. If the person in the check-out line had a British accent? Would that promote a different conversation. What if the worker spoke with a Canadian accent. Are you running late for a class, could you suddenly be:) Or is it Friday night and the wifi has gone down?…

    Have you seen Fight Club? 🙂 (I can’t talk about it any more:)

    It my personal opinion, you will offer to Yale, yourself(in a spiritual and logical and ethereal way) and of the two entities, Yale will gain from you being there more than you will gain from being at Yale. But then let’s see what Yale will do with what you have given them. Everybody else should keep paying attention to you as you are off to greater things my dear friend.


    You’ve got to know your limitations. I don’t know what your limitations are. I found out what mine were when I was twelve. I found out that there weren’t too many limitations, if I did it my way. ~Johnny Cash

    I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers. ~Helen Keller

  • Have you ever taken a powerful magnifying glass to a photograph in a magazine only to have beautiful scenery converted to a collection of meaningless coloured dots? That’s what happens when you examine your own identity too closely. “You” can only be observed from a distance. Look too close, and your identity vanishes in a haze of meaningless (and often conflicting) details. That is why we confuse what we do with who we are. In the end, when asked the question “Who are you?”, the Old Testament answer of “I am” is only one possible.

  • “Who” Roz is is each individuals’ conception of her. To the extent that those different conceptions converge, so Roz’s identity [as perceived by others] becomes a consistent “Roz”. Then everyone has one and the same image of Roz and that is “Who” Roz is. Now whether Roz perceives herself as others see her is another matter. In practice perception of you varies because people know you in various differing situations as well as perceiving you from within their own identities. The degree of similarity between self-perception and others’ perception is largely dependent on one’s metacognition.

  • Perhaps the most important attribute of any individual within humankind, aside from the intellectual ability to reason, is empathy. When nurtured, empathy combined with reason becomes a constructive road to wisdom. Without empathy, intellect can be very destructive. Last but not least, empathy is the birthplace of true love.

    • Thank you, Frank, for these very wise words. Sadly, it seems to me that empathy is decreasing, not increasing. What is your view?

  • We are works in progress, each one of us unique, and changing as we travel from birth to death. Each one of our fellow travellers sees us differently because we glimpse each other from different angles. Paradoxically, this very uniqueness and difference is what brings us together.
    I’m currently grappling with a scandalous story just published by prestigious German news magazine Der Spiegel. In spring 2006, a secret service agent in Hesse, Germany, obstructed investigations into the murder of a young man of Turkish descent. Why? According to an intelligence officer, the welfare of the state of Hesse depended on “maintaining secrecy”, whereas the murder of one young man was “a mere homicide”.
    What horrifies me in this story is the repetition of past evils and the risk of hatred growing among groups of people whose dignity has been trampled.
    When state agents feel as free to destroy lives as any terrorist, we need to stand up in protest. When our crazy money-grubbing societies exploit the world to hell and gone, we need to stand up in protest.
    We need to remember our common humanity and focus on the things that connect us. But we also need to be very watchful, as you have been, Roz, that those who feel they have the power don’t get out of control. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but there are many of us sharing this particular journey, each in her and his own way.
    (Full Spiegel article here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/hesse-intelligence-agency-hindered-murder-investigation-a-853669-2.html)

    • Thank you for sharing this story, Margret. It is an intriguing question, how we create a society in which everybody is answerable for their actions, and nobody is above the law – or basic human decency.

  • Thanks for all the great comments here, and also those that various people have emailed to me. I’m having a busy day today so haven’t had time to give them my full attention yet, but very much appreciate the feedback and look forward to reading them properly.

  • Good questions. I rarely, if ever, ponder such imponderables … but now I have, and I think … I AM (or I like to think that I AM): a seeker of truth, holistic, open-minded, objective, fair, just, inclusive, not interested in power, not interested in wealth, not selfish or greedy, not parochial, not sociopathic. I believe we who identify this way have always been “under attack” by those who behave conversely. But I personally don’t feel threatened — rather, frustrated, at times. Not sure that will ever change. We just have to keep responding to the realities of what comes along and do what we believe is right for the given circumstance.

    Grow, Roz! Grow!

  • This made me think of the movie “Into the Wild,” in which a young college graduate literally rids himself of all things used to identify him, in addition of all material things, to set out on a journey to find himself.
    He ends up alone, in a run down transit bus in Canada, only to realize that “happiness is not real unless shared.”
    Based on a true story, some elk hunters found him dead from starvation. He had accidently eaten a poisonous berry after misidentifying it in a book he had brought with him.
    Unfortunately, his search for self had cost him his life, but he did find himself before he died – he needed other people for his “self” to function accurately.
    This is not a situation which you will encounter at Yale as you are working with other people. I wonder if you encountered it while alone in the middle of the ocean?
    This movie is definitely worth watching for those who wonder about such things. I think it’s time for me to watch it again. Sad as the movie is, it motivates me in an odd way. It also gives me mixed feelings, which I think is good for all of us.
    Good luck with your studies – they sound so interesting!

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