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The identity conundrum

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“you are not a name
or a height, or a weight
or a gender
you are not an age
and you are not where you are from

you are your favorite books
and the songs stuck in your head
you are your thoughts 
and what you eat for breakfast
on Saturday mornings

you are a thousand things
but everyone chooses
to see the million things
you are not

you are not 
where you are from
you are
where you are going
and i’d like
to go there
― M.K

The sublimed truth in these words definitely has a potential stirring effect on our soul. Since time immemorial, humans have pondered over the existence of the self and how it transposes on the societal façade. The answers to one are rather tedious one groomed in a subtle metaphysical discourses. It takes an entire lifetime of one’s experiences to inculcate thoughts over the multitude emotions one encounters when self-realization and one’s identity are the circulating puzzle predominating one’s minds.

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”, bemoans  Oscar Wilde . This is perhaps understandable. After all, we are product and projections of what our family and the society wants us to be.  The socio-cultural values inculcated by our family and society at large at the formative age have a deep and lasting impression on our minds. As Chuck Palahniuk surmises in his writings in ‘Invisible Monsters’  “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known. ” This draws humans into its own zone of comfort, a cacoon knit by the society which moulds him into becoming a cell in the fabric diligently spread by centuries of existential comportment.

Still, the conundrum of self-reality and true identity is even present and lurking in a dark corner of one’s consciousness. It pervades the thought process and dominates it at stage of human life sparked by the enigmatic ‘enlightenment’. “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” exudes Patrick Rothfuss.  Enthused by the drive to unshackle oneself from the clutches of bounded existence of mundane life and its associated social juxtaposition, humans delve on the issue of self-identity both in physical and metaphysical realm. “Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.” opines Harvey Fierstein.

Interestingly, this multi-dimension progression is highly individualistic both in process and its consequential end result. But all such explorations do retain a common denominator, which are guided by diverse moral rumblings. “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” forecasts Ralph Ellison in his work ‘Invisible Man’. On the other extreme, some turn their search for truth back into the welfare of the masses. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” declares Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, there is the whole world between these extremes notions of individuality and collective consciousness. “We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves.

And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.” These words of Chuck Palahniuk emphasize as to how self-identity permeates into our consciousness and its prominence in the existential realm of mankind. It is not an exaggeration to exert that any meaningful existence of human beings without realization of its self is but a vegetable survival.

Though the existing binaries should not be the yardstick to propagate a healthy and worthwhile debate, yet the notion of self-rejection at the other extreme end of spectrum should be called for as an antithesis of the self-realization. Any perceived notion of self-piety or lack of belief is self has a disastrous potential to undermine the accomplishments in the real world. This is eloquently enumerated by Henri J.M. Nouwen when he propounds “ Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions.

The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

Arguably, one of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self and accept the account of you that is expected by everyone else. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” cautions Steve Jobs while addressing Stanford University commencement speech

The idea of being different and unique, if not better, constitute the basic paradigm of search of one’s identity. This has ignited numerous minds since time immemorial, drawing humans to ask substantive questions on the notions of its unique existence. One ventures to believe that one is not made like any of those who are in existence. “If you try to view yourself through the lenses that others offer you, all you will see are distortions; your own light and beauty will become blurred, awkward, and ugly. Your sense of inner beauty has to remain a very private thing.” 

exhorts John O’Donohue in ‘Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom’. The sense of uniqueness propels individualism which is truly manifested in thoughts and emotions of many. “I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.” exclaims Madonna. This is truly the sole foundation of determination of one’s identity coupled with dignity. “Without dignity, identity is erased.” insists Laura Hillenbrand in her seminal work ‘Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival’. Dignity and self-respect has the potential to encompass the entire community on perceived notion of common identity, bondage, history and sometimes identical aspirations or sufferings. This collectiveness of intertwined identities can permeate the political and social discourse of a nation resulting in germination of revolutions in mankind and the strife of socio-political justice.

In the philosophical realm, the answers to the question might lead to further questions whose answers again can generate cyclical contours where the truth is not fixed but uncertain. The multitude of truths of a singular idea has in its core the essence of human experiences which cannot be parametrized based on definite factors. As the great Albert Einstein puts it “We experience ourselves our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.”  The seeming concept of collectiveness in human’s identity has been at the threshold of all major religions and the teachings they offer to mankind. This recognizes common identity as far too important than sole identity of a self. “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” pontificates Brennan Manning in ‘Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging’.

This radical notion of only one Universal identity has propelled many religious discourses and has shaped the human goals defined in them. “The ego is the false self-born out of fear and defensiveness.” surmises John O’Donohue in ‘Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom’. This rejection of ego and its close identification with self again plunges the discourse in a quandary. “Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of inextinguishable regrets.” laments Joseph Conrad in ‘Heart of Darkness’.

The real answers to the questions of self-identity do not have a fixed form. The truth is to shape the collective experience life offers into a single relevant and poignant idea best reflective of its innate soul. “I’ve tried to become someone else for a while, only to discover that he, too, was me.” bemoans Stephen Dunn. Identifying the parts of oneself that are tangible and acquired through a lifetime of self-searching is truly the single most significant step in search of one’s identity.

One cannot allow his thoughts to get drown in the ruckus of cacophony that life offers. As Winston S Churchill points out “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The trick is to never try to do anything that is outside of who you are, but acknowledge the supremacy of voice of soul and put it into definite shape of thoughts, imbibe them as a reality and bring them into actionable endeavors. In words of G.K. Chesterton “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.” 

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