The Absence of Identity

Apr 4, 2014

I started out this blog writing a post about The Importance of Identity. Growing up feeling lost and disconnected from the people around me, I – like many others – felt it imperative to define myself so as to fit in and “survive.” But “identity,” like many things we think we need, is just a mental construct, created by the perceptions we form about ourselves in the context of our respective communities. And because, as young people, our minds first learn more about our surroundings than they do about our own selves, we’re inevitably set up for an identity crisis at some point in our life. This was mine.

Society is full of paradoxes, and as you learn and grow, it’s difficult to know when to listen and when not. While we are constantly fed messages about self improvement and idealized goals, we simultaneously see that no matter how far we get, there are always more messages telling us that we’re not there yet, not “__” enough. Though we are a society constantly obsessed with running and “moving forward,” we rarely share a clear understanding of where exactly we’re going. Try as we might, it becomes clear that overcoming one hurdle just leads to a dozen more. No matter how much we may find ourselves setting and striving for goals in life, we ultimately find that there just is no end. There will always be people influencing you to do more and be more, to move to the next level, to reach some peak, and just when you think you’ve figured something out, there’s something new telling you that you’re still not there yet. And the reason why is simple: there is no such thing as “there.”

Evolution, the history of the universe and every natural thing around us is constantly showing us the truth that there is no ultimate stability, no ultimate perfection, just constant movement. And in this movement, there are cycles: things coming back around over and over, each time a little differently (reconvergence points). So if we’re always pushing ourselves to run to some hypothetical finish line, we’ll never truly reach it and thus never truly rest and enjoy our existence. While I agree with the notion that life is a constant journey of self discovery, I find it immensely necessary to ensure that every so often, when we feel the need, for however long we want, we take time to rest, to stop trying to seek answers and just be and enjoy ourselves as we exist right now. You’ll always learn more about yourself as you experience new things, but perhaps the most critical thing you can learn is just enough self confidence to, at times, say “stop,” ignore all other noise coming in, even from the most supporting of friends, and just revel in the here and now for a while. It may just be that that’s when you learn the most.

Finding yourself is a difficult process, though far less of one without the constraints society sets forth. It’s also immensely personal; only you have the most data points on yourself to know what’s true and what’s not. The tools we need to look within, however, are already in us: it’s the same process we use to design things, to solve problems, to innovate and to tell stories, a process which requires the most disciplined of scrutiny and honesty, of openness and imagination, of care and empathy. It requires us to look at ourselves without judgement, without fear, with complete love and possibility, all with a “friendly curiosity” and discover our core essences that govern how we move about and respond to our environment. To do this on your own, consistently amid a variety of contexts but without the influence of outside voices, is perhaps the greatest and most important accomplishment of your lifetime.

Before the “invention” of society, of community, living organisms had no self-awareness or individualism. That part of ourselves arose because we started working together in the first place. Recognizing yourself in another is the first basic step to self-awareness and trust, and over time we grew both our need for belonging and for our own self esteem. But because self esteem is derived by how we view ourselves and how we are viewed in the context of other people, it is all too easy to get wrapped up in the idea that a strong identity is the key to our happiness. Unfortunately, however, this notion inevitably proves false, for identity is just the tangible layer between who you really are inside and how you are seen. It is how you see yourself when you look in the mirror, how you define yourself by what you do, what you say, what you surround yourself with, and how others perceive you (which of course depends more on their own identity struggles than how you really appear to them).

So though we cry, we hurt, we struggle, ever consumed with answering the question “who am I?,” the short answer is, we aren’t anything but our own awarenesses. And if you don’t have that, then you really aren’t much of anything. The very absence of identity ends up being the strongest one.

For the majority of my life, I’ve had trouble defining my identity, which may explain why I took so keenly to social technology. Though I didn’t know it, I was lost for a long time, constantly feeling that I was never in the “right” place or amidst the “right” circumstances. I had envisioned a certain life for myself, a certain set of friends, job, family, lifestyle and I continually tried to create it wherever I went. Starting this blog at the beginning of 2010, I thought I was finally taking charge of myself and making the reality I wanted. I had a great new job with great new people, I had a great new house with great new housemates, I had parties, I was writing, I was dating, I had decorated my room and I was working on rewarding projects. I was settling in and everything felt “stable.” But it was a shell.

As is usually the case when we define ourselves by purely external elements, things slowly begin to fade and I soon fell out of love with many and most aspects of my situation. It wasn’t as ideal as I thought it was and, after spending some time wandering around Europe without a shred of connection to my regular life, I reached a point in which I was no longer attached to this life I thought I had and wanted. After taking personal therapy seriously for almost two years, I had come to see more clearly seeing the patterns I had been following and finally decided to do something different. Carefully crafting an identity appeared to be the wrong approach to find happiness, and I wondered how much more to my identity I had been long holding onto. So instead of looking for it again somewhere else in what would most likely prove to be exactly the same situation as before, I attempted to shed everything I thought I was, everything I thought I was supposed to be, and everything by which I was defining myself – including writing on this blog – slowly but surely stripping away the layers down to my very lonely, very fearful, raw and hurt inner core that had nothing external to lean on for support. Perhaps a scary notion to some, but I did this using the very same techniques on myself that I had been using for design for many years: I removed all distraction and started exploring within, slowly and slowly questioning more and simplifying until I could reach the core essence of who I was at heart. No more roommates, no more familiar city or friends, no more job, no more possessions, no more “stability,” just me.

Now I find myself in an interesting place: I have very few if any ties to anything external. After what has felt like another lifetime of personal exploration, I pretty much gave up everything I thought I was and decided midway through last year to stop for a bit, and revel in my journey thus far. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know who I am right now, how I love and what I need. And though I hear myself and others continually pushing me to change further, I am, at this moment, choosing to be at rest, attempting to embrace the existence of who I am right now and the floatiness that comes with the lack of certainty in goals.

This position of mine, standing still and resting, is often equated by others to being stagnant, unproductive and “flatlined,” thus quickly looked upon with confusion or disdain. But I find this “resting” point to be a different kind of movement, one whose guiding waves come from the new contexts I’ve been placing myself in, psychological and environmental, and where the direction I take comes purely by how I feel in those contexts, not what I think I should do. We tend to think of this “floating” as a scary notion, and indeed I do too, because we have been conditioned to follow rules, be cautious, plan ahead and know where we are going. And, as with most things in our societally-created life, it isn’t so common to go against the “norm” and detach ourselves from a standard way of living. But we must remember that, like everything produced en masse, the norm is a median, a baseline, a straight line with an idealized, albeit nonexistent, destination.

Throughout history, our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are or where we are going in this ocean of chaos.-Timothy Leary

In this swirling chaos of the natural world and the even more chaotic waves created by a society of people each struggling to make their own way, we exist peacefully, ever breathing, ever swirling, ever pulsing. And if we can each understand our own waveform and work to find that frequency at which we vibrate in our prime, then we need not define ourselves or worry where we are going, nor do we need to tense up with change or seek it out. No, instead we discover that we are in fact not little beings in some ocean of chaos after all; we are the ocean.

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