A Piece About Identity
Introvert by Sammy Slabbinck, 2015
The boundaries of identity have been questioned a lot these past few years, bared to the bone in strikes and counter strikes debating our place in a world that mutates almost beyond recognition multiple times in a single lifetime. Not that this is entirely new - we always find our way back to that one fundamental question; humanity has always questioned its place in the universe, plagued by the profound need to define its purpose in the grand scheme of things. But in recent decades, the word itself has become one of serious contention. As the walls of traditional societies and value systems crumble, we are ushered back to square one. In the social sciences and humanities; in politics and in art, the question of identity is one intensely examined, treated as the lynchpin that somehow holds the answers that are able to make sense of a complex reality of shifting borders, contours, and definitions, where concepts surrounding culture, ethnicity, and the individual self are being pulled out of the drawer and aired out to make way for new ideas and perspectives.
In the crashing torrents of change, we are simply lost; the world has opened up to include the far corners of the earth in the palm of our hands, and we so deeply need to find a sense of home, even one that moves with us, an intrinsic point that holds us together so that we don’t wash away with the tide. In some way or another, we are now all third culture kids, and as beautiful as being able to move to new territory and call it home is, the freedom of being from everywhere comes with its own heavy burdens.
And yet, with all its fundamental importance in guiding our lives, in helping us make choices that best reflect our innate potential and ultimately, lead us to an existence filled with meaning and purpose – the pursuit of happiness we all so firmly believe in – it turns out, one of the hardest things we’ll ever attempt to do is to pinpoint who we really are. To feel out our contours and edges, to consciously look at and understand them; to open up our individual selves and look, without misconceptions and prejudices, at each naked layer, until we are able to see ourselves with the same clarity with which we see ourselves reflected in a mirror.
Initial attempts at introspection reveal that when we start to look closely, the self splits into a kaleidoscope of fragments, all distinct yet interlinked, a mass of contradictions, where shards internalized from family, society and experiences leave splinters that become an indivisible part of the authentic individual. What should be one of the easiest things to answer eludes even the most tenacious of self-reflections.
At an off hand glance, it seems so easy – I am myself; that is that. Identity is an instinctual feeling. We know who we are in our hearts, but we lack the words to fully define it; the words are there, but not there at the same time. Like an animal in the wilderness, the moment you look directly at it, it seems to vanish. It almost doesn’t want to be discovered, leaving us with a vague concept of ourselves that our mind isn’t fully able to hold onto.
Perhaps it is because identity, though we imagine it as a pillar, is not just a fixed point, but a fixed point in motion that continuously oscillates between states, reacting and re-assessing itself in relation to everything that surrounds us, inseparable from the attempt of understanding why we do what we do. This is a question that never ceases to be asked, as we evolve, carried by life’s unpredictability and shaped by things and experiences we both look for and ones we never could have imagined would befall us.
It persists with every step; what do we keep, what do we shed? What is fundamentally ourselves, our inner stable core, what are transient traits we subconsciously pick up to deal with specific, intense moments in our lives, and how do we know if we should let them go - an eternally expanding cycle of questioning and evolving; always a step away from understanding, always conscious of an itch we can't seem to scratch.
In subconscious pursuit of meaning and ourselves, we travel, we read, we try our hands at different jobs and skills – perhaps one will spark something in us that will set off an intelligible string of realizations - the moving gears of an awakened consciousness. The mind refuses to be idle, and it’s a great consolation to feel as if the answer might be just around the corner from a future enlightening experience. We strive for betterment, for richer and grander layers; and yet, the thing with the authentic self is that it is akin to instinct, it cannot be dressed or trained, it simply is.
In the end, we are no more a simple blank slate at birth than we are a straightforward accumulation of experiences – the answer lies somewhere in between, too intermingled with everything to stand distinct and independent. Beginnings and endings chase themselves at infinitum; whether the product of external environment, whether asked for or not, the you of tomorrow is just as you as the you of today.
And looking at the state of the world right now, we see so clearly that things aren’t what they used to be; what made sense for our parents barely makes sense for us anymore. Foundations are being uprooted, traditional career paths are halfway between then and tomorrow, and notions of normalized systems, family, love and relationships are bending to modernity’s new ways of life. We are perpetually bombarded with new ideas, concepts, theories and lifestyles – the temptation to try on an infinity of identities and ideologies is strong, and the danger of losing ourselves, just as present.
In a world in flux such as this it would seem that the pursuit of a defined sense of self, with all its complexity and elusiveness, is one of fundamental importance. Even if in the end, we are never complete, never final, our identities forever a work in progress, even if we have to be content with a partial blindness that is only good enough for the present, we cannot allow ourselves to be a reed in the wind, bending with each slight shift in direction.
Even if we are grasping at echoes, that act of introspection, the simple attempt to stop and take a moment to understand, is our anchor in a world that seems to be stretching itself in all possible directions, engulfing everything into a global 'oneness,' a beautiful and destructive whole.
Without external fixed points to guide us, a conscious, if even partial awakening of the self ultimately becomes what grounds us. When all else falls apart, the individual is the one left standing, and put simply, how can you know where to take your next step, if you don't know who you are.