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.
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?
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?