A Sketch on the Insignificance of Identity
Everyone has a personal myth. A story of their self and being, of who they are and how they fit into the world. None of these myths are correct; that is, none of them particularly reflect an objective reality. Their recurring motifs and themes, consciously or subconsciously, are works of interpretation over the stark facts of basic events.
For example, a man and a woman may marry, and they may divorce, over infidelity; it is up to the personal myth to explain to each of them that they are the victim, the traitor, the naïf, the cuckold, the survivor, or merely the divorced person. The personal myth calls this breach an infidelity, an affair, a romance, a mistake, or the best thing that ever happened to them.
The personal myth is necessary because the bare facts of life, shorn of interpretation, do nothing to explain us to ourselves. We may know we are orphans, mothers, employees, sad—but it remains to the myth to turn the orphan into the Lost Child, the mother into the Neglected Housewife, the employee into the Aggrieved Servant, or the sad into the Sick in Mind. The personal myth is just as capable of being something else entirely, given the same facts: the orphan may be the Family Heir, the mother the Supermom, the employee an Indispensable Lieutenant, or the sad into the Seeker after Happiness.
This is the strength and the weakness of the personal myth. The strength is that it provides identity, a way of grappling with challenges and problems which is ready-made, a posture that can endure the buffets of life. This is safety, confidence. Whatever vicissitude strikes, the personal myth promises to absorb it, weave it into narrative, so that what we do and say is understood by us. This gives us confidence. We believe we know who we are, and even if who we are is not good or wonderful, we are that.
The weakness is that it is myth. Identity is not so easy, not so pure that we can weave a narrative which will, simultaneously, capture ourselves completely, and also prepare for what new plots and characters life will introduce. The world itself cares nothing for the personal myth, and will continue to stack challenges at your doorstep even if your personal myth is equipped not at all to handle them.
What is more, the personal myth encourages us to react a particular way; it says, “But if you do this, this new action you are contemplating, this radical thing, then you won’t fit inside me anymore—and then who will you be? And where?” Thus the personal myth resists change with terrible force, and what is more, resists growth. The myth is an awesome tool for survival, if you believe your self could be swept away at any moment and destroyed; it is a terrible tool for living.
As an aside, let’s consider a parable drawn directly from the life of someone I know, a relatively new stay-at-home mother, formerly employed in a high-powered career, with a husband who frequently works long hours (partially by necessity, partially by choice) and participates little in the care of the young children.
It was a week that each day he arrived home too late to help with dinner, putting the children to sleep, and all of the hectic routine that requires the most energy at the time of the day when the least is available. During this time, my friend had silently stewed when her husband came home, ate dinner, and immediately fell asleep in a perfectly arranged home.
She was on the point of an outburst when for the eighth night in a row he came home and fell asleep in an armchair and she noticed the pacific smile on his drowsing face; she realized immediately that the environment of quiet and comfort which allowed him to sleep this way she had, by herself, conjured out of a shrieking chaos of children in the last half hour by brute force alone; she realized that it was her work that had enabled this.
She had, in her own head, been playing the role of the Neglected Housewife, going about her day resentfully while she imagined her husband off on exciting adventures, then furious when he returned to enjoy the fruits of her labor. It—and this is perhaps a mark of her incredible character, because this sort of change of attitude is incredibly difficult—took only the jolt of his beatific smile to switch her personal myth to Supermom, and for her to reëvaluate her actions and circumstances in that context, for her to cast herself in the role of mission command, perfectly concluding each day in an unbroken string of successes such that every time her husband came home every last detail was taken care of and he could retire while devoting his full energy to his work.
This story may or may not satisfy your personal myth, if you imagine yourself in her circumstances; nevertheless her simple change of role turned her in that moment from a person who had been feeling chronically unfulfilled to one who felt that she had managed incredibly well in difficult circumstances, and was happy and proud of herself for doing so.
But the facts, well, the true facts cannot really be known. Any set of facts beyond the purely physical and mathematical are open to interpretation (and even mathematical truth must often be interpreted), so the personal myth cannot really be abandoned.
What we do then amounts to a terrifically powerful choice. We have to choose to evaluate our myth on its own merits. We are handed a set of cultural myths, social myths, psychological myths, religious myths, and we pick these often by default, because we believe that outside the box of identity, we could be destroyed utterly. But the box is a prison. Each label we give ourselves is one more way we can be called, and leashed.
We can’t abandon the myth, but we can pick and choose. We can ask ourselves—is this really me? Is this all that I am? Is there perhaps more? Maybe, indeed, the personal myth I have chosen is just a position, and the real shield of my identity is my name itself. And by this I mean not the name someone gave you, your parents or your friends or even yourself, but the only name you really have for yourself: I.
I is bigger than the personal myth, and far more frightening, because I can contain any number of myths, myths beyond number; I is capable of being not only Traitor but Betrayed. I is not romantic or even compelling, because I is not a coherent narrative at all—like all the very best stories, I resists all classification, is immune to being pigeonholed in such a way. And as such, I may choose between any role at any given time, and so live its own life free from both the constraints of packaged identity and its safety. The pure freedom of I is not that it always does things that are original or new, or always goes against the grain of what people would expect (that is the personal myth of the Artistic Rebel), but that I may conform or not as it chooses, may pick the role that fits the circumstances and discard that role cleanly and without regret if it provides for an unhappy life or simply no longer works.
Do not underestimate the difficulty of attaining I; really being able to embrace the self, rather than a tiny role or personal myth that is only a dwindling part of it, is rather outside the grasp of anyone to do all of the time. When we are low, or stressed, or simply don’t know what to do, we often retreat to our myths and fantasies by way of consolation, or fear. But it is important to acknowledge that I exists, that I is bigger than any particular label or role or myth that may reside within it.
We do this because it gives us the ability to change. No personal myth is big enough, expansive enough, to make us happy all the time; and no myth is big enough, wonderful enough, to contain even the lesser half of a real relationship with another human being. We embrace I because only I can really approach another I; as long as we remain inside the myth, human beings are strangers blundering past each other in the dark, too busy conversing with our inner monologues to hear each other speaking, and reach out, and clasp hands. The myth is a powerful dream, and we want to believe it, but we are adults, not children, and human voices must wake us, sooner or later, to conversing truly.