On Identity

I mentioned briefly in the previous post that I have done a lot of things in my not-too-long life. I’ve been an actress, a bookseller, and a graduate student, not once but twice in two different fields. I’ve studied Victorian Literature and medieval romance, Crusade narratives and narrative theory. I’ve developed a dislike of post-modernism and a deep respect for scholarship. I’ve designed story times and assessed historical collections. I’ve helped students learn to read and write critically and, even more importantly, to think for themselves.

During all of this, I taught myself how to write. I did this by reading a lot, and by writing very bad stories for many, many years until I got better and began to get published, much to my surprise and delight. I’ve done a great many things, (a lot of them monumental to no one but myself), but I have done none of them with as much success as I’d have liked.

I’ve wondered, often despairingly, why this was, and I recently realized that it comes down to something very simple and extremely silly. It has to do with identity. We are, in many ways, identified by what we do. Our professional labels carry with them certain societal markers that, for good or ill, place us into categories and boxes.

“What do you do?”

“ Oh, I’m a ____.”

And there. The person you’re talking to subconsciously, or consciously slots you into a box that defines the rest of that interaction, or, potentially, the rest of that relationship.

Doctor = Smart. Fireman = Brave. Teacher = Dedicated.

I’ve never liked boxes. They simplify the inherently complex identity of the person they represent. And yet, my intellectual mind knows how functional these boxes are. My intellectual mind acknowledges that most people know that there is more to a person than what he or she does. And yet, I resisted committing to one field for years. The irony is that resisting commitment to a professional identity does not exempt you from pigeonholing. If anything, that lack of commitment becomes a different kind of marker, one that makes commitment a far more attractive thing.

In fact, it may well be that it is commitment to a particular identity that nurtures and harnesses a person’s full potential. It signals the maturation of ambitions, whether you’re working a day job so you can write at night, or tearing up Wall Street. Commitment to identity signals to the world that you know, at a certain level, who you are, and that you are self-aware enough to pursue your interests professionally and / or vocationally.

It’s that acceptance of public identity, paired with a lack of concern for the illusion of its importance, that frees a person to pursue the depth of their potential in whatever field, or identity, they choose.

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4 thoughts on “On Identity

  1. I am right there with you. To this day, I really do not know what my identity is. When I talk about this with my husband, he tells me that I am a mother and a wife, and that my family loves me for it. It amazes me how good it feels to be accepted just for that, but I cannot and will not believe that that is all I am. I am craving to find my identity or my label, if you will, in this world. In going back to school to get my degree I am hoping somewhere along the way, I will find my public and personal identity.

  2. Absolutely. That’s the complicated thing – we tend to have more than one identity. So while wife and mother are incredibly important, I understand the craving for an identity that is solely one’s own -that reflects, very simply, you and what you value, independent of your relationships to the people you love (which is in no way meant to imply that those relationships aren’t fulfilling or are not enough – they just occupy different spaces). As you can see, I’m very much still working this out, myself 😉

  3. My identity appears to be both free-floating and solid; I don’t really sit easily in any category, but I seem to know who I am. If I knew how I did that, I would tell you.

  4. That’s the interesting thing – it’s a really individual situation, (one’s relationship to one’s identity / identities). That said, anyone who tried to tell you, in particular, that you don’t know who you are, clearly doesn’t know you well.

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