I recently had the opportunity to perform a spoken word poem that I had written a while ago. And on the day of the performance, I remember staring at the words on the pages that I was holding and realizing that these phrases that once held so much emotion and meaning to me no longer seemed relevant to my life.
In fact, when I had written this poem, I had written it for myself; however, as I read through the heartfelt lines, I realized that the “me” who I had written this piece for now seemed quite foreign to the “me” who was about to perform it. In many ways, it felt like someone had pulled out a photo from some old yearbook, and I cringed at seeing a picture I had long since forgotten and perhaps even blocked from my memory.
In a moment of confusion and exasperation, I told my friend, this just isn’t me anymore.
To which he replied, that’s what your guest post should be about!
And here we are. So let’s dive in!
What had changed?
What was different?
How was I different?
Who was I back then?
Who am I now?
Who am I?
These are the immediate questions that I was prompted to answer as I struggled to associate with words that had once come out of me with so much depth and personal meaning.
Identity is something that I could – and actually have – talked for hours about. It is this amorphous and complex concept that many of us tend to underestimate and overlook in our day-to-day lives. However, it something that I have played around with and conceptualized and re-conceptualized for years through multiple lenses and perspectives.
What makes us who we are?
For many of us, we innately feel like there is something – some core part of ourselves – that makes us who we are; it’s something that makes us special and it’s that something which makes me recognize that you are different from myself. But what is that innate thing? What makes me “me”?
Is it my body? It can’t possibly be; my body has morphed and aged and changed in ways that make me unrecognizable to my own self. In some cases, it just takes one haircut or a different pair of glasses for people (including me) to no longer recognize myself.
Is it my personality? I really hope not. If my identity is still defined by the weird jokes I made or the super self-conscious personality I had when I was in middle school, I’m not sure I would be where I am today. While I recognize some continuities in my personality, these parts have matured, morphed, and merged into something that would probably be unrecognizable to a past version of myself.
Is it my intellect? Again this is something that grows with time. If I were to get into a car accident and damage my intellectual faculties – I would still consider there to be some part of me that makes me “me”, even if I am no longer able to think as critically as I once could.
These are the kinds of questions that are important to ask ourselves. It is through this process of critical self-evaluation that one beings to unravel this illusion of “specialness” that we often construct for ourselves. It is a narrative that society (American culture especially) loves to feed us – “you are each unique, individual, and special” is what we are told over and over again. And it’s something that has become so engrained in ourselves, that it’s often hard to begin to break down these walls of individuality that we’ve been building since we were toddlers.
But if I can’t even pin down what exactly makes me who I am – how can I claim to be different from any other person, or supposedly “one-of-a-kind”?
Again – even if you identify yourself as being unique because of the beautiful color of your eyes or your extreme intelligence – there are 7 other billion people on the planet. So there’s a high chance that there exists someone who has the same characteristic as you do – physical, mental, or anything else “unique” you can come up with. We are not as unique as we think we are; we all have something about us that we share in common with someone else – and that’s okay. It is only when we begin to realize this that the space opens up for us to recognize our infinite similarities, for our empathy to grow, and for there to be compassion and joy.
Meditation is another thing that has acted as a lens and shaped the perspective with which I view identity. It is through meditation on the heart that I have begun to realize how beautiful the Heart is – both as a real organ that we all share in common and that literally brings us to life, and also as a metaphorical organ that helps us experience love, pain, and beauty. Over the years, it has helped to deepen my understanding of what it truly means when we say that we all “share a common humanity”. It has helped me see that as we break down these artificial barriers of difference, we begin to love and respect every being with a beating heart, human or otherwise. For as you begin to connect to your own heart, you automatically begin to feel more connected to others’ hearts as well.
After breaking down these notions of individuality and unique identity, it is important to understand that if understood correctly, this is empowering. What this means is that we each have a choice. As Amartya Sen describes in his book “Identity and Violence”, we have so many aspects to ourselves – name, gender, culture, color, ethnicity, belief (or lack thereof) in afterlife, hobbies, communities, nationalities, music taste, book preference, career paths, and so much more – that we all have a choice in deciding what to give preference and priority to in any given context.
Thus, we are able to determine at any moment what we would like our identity to be, within reasonable constraints. Furthermore, this is not simply something ordained to us or something that we slowly unravel as time goes on, it’s something that we can actively participate in, choose, and unfortunately, something that can even be manipulated at times.
Hence, Sen makes an extremely essential point (see him give an hour-long lecture on this topic here) about how we must take this understanding of every individual having multiple facets to their identity and extend this logic on a global level. For example, a man from the Middle East may be a Muslim; however, he may also be a piano player, a hipster, a cartoonist, a person with a love for good Italian food, etc..
By viewing people through the lens of singular identity (Ie. “You are, and can only ever be, a Muslim or a Christian”), we are perpetuating difference and forever dooming the world to violence. Because the moment I see you as only being one kind of person (whether it’s through the lens of gender, race, religion, or even something as trivial as shoe size), I am reducing you to a category and stripping you of your humanity.
On an individual level, this is important, because we are often only fed single stories that perpetuate misguided fears and stereotypes (you’ve got to watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk: Danger of a Single Story). And even when we think we’ve become unbiased, cultured experts – there will always be moments (like this one) that will make us check our assumptions.
As we explore this conglomeration of people, places, and things that make up our multi-faceted identity, it is fascinating to see who and what we’ll find and at what given moments in our life. Our diverse set of experiences that have contributed to our present conception of self is always something worth appreciating and learning from.
Ultimately, we are always changing. No matter how many times we look back at our lives, whether we are sensitive enough or want to acknowledge it or not, we are always changing. After all, we are alive, which means that we are always moving, making mistakes, taking chances, changing all the while. Hence, my blog is titled Perpetual Change; it is an attempt to capture the journey of an ever-changing soul – the journey of “me”. Thank you for taking this dive.
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