Throughout this post I’ll be talking about identity a lot, so I’d like to start by defining what that word means to me. The simplest thing that I can think to say is when we ask ourselves the question, “Who am I?” what comes to mind? I like to break my answer up into two parts: the roles I play and character traits. By roles, I mean things like father, friend, profession – the areas of our lives where we attempt to derive purpose; and with character traits, I’m talking about stuff like pretty, funny, short, smart, etc. – stuff that’s less important than our role, but still significant in determining how we view the world and how we feel the world views us.
I also won’t be addressing religious/spiritual answers to identity because that’s an area that I’m still working through myself. I will be using Buddhism as a means of deconstructing identity, but I won’t be talking about Buddhism’s answer to who we ultimately are. Most religions/spiritual beliefs would say that we are an eternal soul, or the Universe, or nature, or the image of God, or something along those lines, and while these concepts of who we are are certainly worth delving into, they are not something I feel confident talking about, so I’ll be limiting this post to a discussion of secular identity.
More specifically, I’ll be talking about the loss of identity that many people experience after they finish their schooling.
Being a student covers a large part of our identity for a very long time. And, unlike other apsects of our identity, it was given to us. There was no soul searching as a child as we tried to figure out if we wanted to be students. It was just something that we always were. And even though most of us would claim that we want the freedom to choose what we do, there is a comfort that comes when you wake up in the morning and you know what your role for the day is. The role of student provided structure and a direct path: wake up at 8, go to school until 3, do homework (maybe), get these grades to get into these colleges, major in this to get these jobs. Then, we graduate and we’re spit out into the real world, bleary eyed and hungover, dragging a ball and chain of student debt behind us trying to find our new role, and it’s scary.
The freedom to choose our own paths can be difficult. What if we choose wrong?
When faced with the infinite possibilities of life one begins to feel understandably overwhelmed. Hell, I get anxiety if there’s too many things on a menu. Now I need to figure out who I am and what I’m gonna do with my life?
Our primary role in society shifts from student to worker, and the transition doesn’t seem to go smoothly for most people. I know it certainly didn’t for me.
I supplanted my identity of student with that of English teacher and flew out to Spain where I learned a lot about myself and had several little meltdowns. My personal identity crisis was largely a three-pronged thrust. The first was the transition from student to worker as I’ve already mentioned. The second was a large social change. During my student years, I was a pretty aggressive partier, and it was at parties that I forged many of my friendships and nearly all of my romantic relationships. I significantly toned the partying down when I came to Spain, but I didn’t quite know what to replace it with, so I found myself in a new country trying to make friends and meet girls, but I had taken away the main way I knew how to do that.
The third part came as a result of me trying to learn Spanish. Easily the hardest part of learning a new language was the loss of identity. Even though I could communicate in Spanish, I couldn’t express myself properly and making jokes was damn near impossible which made social events a nightmare for me. If we think of parties as the battleground for social activity, humor has always been my shield and spear, and without it I felt naked and socially impotent.
These three factors combined to make me feel really uncertain in myself. I used to meet people and a voice in my head would say, “Just relax and be yourself.” to which another voice would quickly reply, “But you don’t even know who yourself is.”
There were two main ways of thinking that helped me begin moving out of this rut. The first was to take a more Buddhist approach to the idea of identity which is that all of the aspects of identity I mentioned above aren’t real – they’re artificial mental constructions. In fact, according to Buddhism, there is no identity or self. Our identity of who we are is a creation of the five ‘skandhas’, “Very simply, our bodies, physical and emotional sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness work together to create the illusion of a permanent, distinctive ‘me’.” But this ‘me’ is in constant flux and changes from moment to moment. The Buddha said, “…every moment you are born, decay, and die.” In terms of identity, if I’ve been a nice guy my entire life, but then I karate chop a baby in the face, then I’m clearly not being a nice guy in that moment. Identity is fluid and shifts from action to action, every instant.
But what about memory as a means of defining identity? Even though the moment of me karate chopping the baby is gone, the memory persists. People could always say, “Remember that time when Nick hit a baby in the face? What a dick.” And so my identity of being a dick would be sustained by memory. However, memories are shaped by perspective. Maybe people thought I hit the baby for no reason, but what really happened was that the baby had a deadly bee allergy and a bee landed on its face, so I karate chopped the bee to save the baby’s life. Two memories of the same event produced two entirely different pictures of who I am.
But let’s say we accept my memory as the true version of the the event. Another setback that we have to address with memory as a source of identity is that our memories aren’t as reliable as we think. For example, Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist whose expertise is memory, conducted a study where she successfully planted a false memory in a quarter of the study’s participants(https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory#t-650281).
Or, there was another famous study done by Neisser, a professor of cognitive psychology at Emory college(http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/idea-happened-memory-recollection). The day after the Challenger explosion, he gave a questionnaire to 106 of his students asking them questions about what they were doing when they heard the news of the explosion. Two and a half years later, they were given the same questionnaire and over 40% of the participants were clearly inconsistent(http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1993-97049-001), with some remembering entirely different situations than those initially recorded.
So maybe a tape of the famous bee incident surfaces, and what really happened was that a bee landed on the baby’s face, I signaled at the bee in a karate-like-chop fashion, and someone else flicked the bee off. But in subsequent tellings of the story, someone said, “Remember when you karate chopped that bee?” I remember some karate chopping was involved, and two years later the story has morphed into me karate chopping the bee, and I come to believe this version of myself as a karate chopping hero when I’m really not.
The point of all this bee-ing (lol classic bee pun) that our sense of identity is constantly changing and doesn’t exist in any concrete sense. This means that we don’t need to put such intense pressure on ourselves to “find our identity” because there is no final answer to that question (again, in secular terms).
That being said, I agree with what the writer Mark Manson had to say on identity: “As humans, we need an identity, a sense of ‘who’ we are, in order to navigate complex social situations and, really, just to get shit done most of the time.”
In this sense, the solution of “there is no identity” didn’t feel entirely satisfactory. Even though I wasn’t as stressed out about it, I was still tired of feeling lost.
What helped me was changing my conception of being lost – from being a bad thing to being something completely normal.
I came to understand that not being sure of one’s identity is, in itself, an identity, and is one that most people share. No one 100% knows who they are or what they’re doing. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum of uncertainty, with some being more certain, others being more towards the “I’ve got no fucking clue” side, and fluctuations between the two occurring frequently.
If you ever feel lost in life, like you’re stumbling through the dark, trembling and alone, know that you can always reach out and feel another person right there beside you. Because we’re all lost to some extent, but we’re lost together, and that makes it a lot less scary.If you enjoyed the post, please give it a share!