It’s easy to go around thinking that where we’re from, who we know, what we have and how we think define who we are. The truth of that the matter is that who we are can’t be defined. This doesn’t mean that we’re special snowflakes who should all be treated gently and according to our every whim; that would be unrealistic in this indifferent universe. But it means recognizing the distinction between the inward and the outward, not in a dualistic sense, but instead in a way that allows us to shape our world from within and not let ourselves feel defined by externals.
We often use concepts, things, and even people as crutches. We hobble on these crutches to get through the days, to give our lives meaning where objective meaning is missing. We thus identify ourselves with the outside world, believing that it’s “out there” and that we can suckle some meaning from it, even though we’re still generating that meaning from within. Someone says, “I’m a liberal, ” or, “I’m a republican, ” or, “I’m a jock,” or, “I’m a punk,” and this allows them a certain meaningful prescription of self. Our labels give us friends and enemies. They give us a place in the world. But that world is a shallow one. Even if we don’t slap these labels on ourselves outright, we still organize our understanding of the world in a judgmental way. The more we subscribe to the labels, the further away we get from our real ‘selves’.
The problem with identity culture is that it creates unhealthy thought patterns. When we curate our identities and believe ourselves to be a certain way. We put ourselves at odds with that which we believe to be incongruous with our ‘type’. People like star signs because they allow them to believe that they are indeed one way, different from other ways. We like religions, class systems, and familial identifications for the same reason. It’s a lot easier to look at oneself, with all its imperfections and unique qualities, and say, “Yeah, well, that’s just who I am.”
This sort of thinking has created a generation intolerant of discomfort. College courses are rife with “trigger warnings”, god forbid a few words upset an individual’s fragilely curated sense of self. We take our experiences, traumatic, glorious, or banal, and convert them into identity fodder. Why do we do this? I see a direct correlation between the technologically-influenced ability for one to curate a detailed and specific public sense of selfhood and a marked inability to deal with anything that comes into conflict with that identity.
The problem with this is that we’re just capitalizing on our own false conceptions of self. Instead of exploring ourselves from within and understanding who we are in private, we feel a need to play a part in a play, to perform. People bicker about where they fall on thousands of different spectrums. They discuss their musical tastes, their family’s backgrounds, their college courses, as if these things are adequate indicators as to who they are.
The problem with defining ourselves using externals is that it presupposes that we’re all different. In reality, the genderqueer vegan barista is no different from the Prada-donning Upper East Side trophy mom. The investment banker is no different from the man in the train station shining his shoes. We all struggle to find a way to differentiate ourselves, and yet what we’re looking for remains buried deep inside all of us, waiting to be uncovered.