Growing up in the United States, I was constantly told that adolescence was the time in your life during which you would “find yourself.” I have diaries littered with anecdotes and feelings that chronicle the metaphysical journey I believed I was on, looking for “Me.” Like a modern “Summoning of Everyman,” I was persuaded that my young life was a phantasmagoria at the end of which there would be a skin I could slip into and finally be myself.
September 13, Kwame Anthony Appiah gave a talk to the Syracuse University community about the role of identity and how it is formed. One of the first things he pointed out was that the prevalence of the term ‘identity’ reflects in a great way the manner in which we discuss life.
He pointed out that in many ways, ‘identities’ are social constructions – labels we apply to other people based on distinctions or inimitable qualities they possess. Some of these labels are based on physical appearance, such as ‘white’ or ‘black.’ Some of these labels are things that we choose for ourselves, such as our careers. I would say, for example, “I am a writer. A poet. A musician.”
In other languages, there is a difference in the verb used when discussing something temporary, versus something permanent. In Spanish for example, there is ‘Ser’ versus ‘Estar.’
But in English, there is nothing more than “I am.” You have to add a modifier such as, ‘currently’ or ‘always.’
“I am white.” “I am tired.” I am always white, but I am only sometimes tired. From this arises a small problem for me. Language doesn’t exist in your head, it is the manifestation of thought, but the brain is such that sometimes I don’t even realize I think certain things until I am speaking them aloud.
If that is the case, it is troubling for me that I make statements about myself that encompass more qualities than I intended. My words represent me to the world around me, and my words come from my thought. So when I say, “I am tired” – in that moment, am I not saying to whomever might listen – “I am a tired person”? And then to this person, that becomes a part of me.
It follows then that even as I grow ever nearer to fully-realized adulthood, I am sometimes unaware of different aspects of myself until they exude from me. And even more frustratingly, a great deal of my identity lies in the perception of others.
So how do I explain to 10-year-old Lauren that the prize at the end of adolescence’s brutal journey of self-discovery isn’t a shiny skin to feel comfortable in? That instead, I not only need to understand who I am, I also need to understand what labels others will subconsciously attach to me and how that alters their reaction to me.
In “I Heart Huckabees” there is a scene I bring up in conversation constantly, when Jude Law’s character has just been informed he hasn’t been acting like himself. And he spends the rest of the movie asking, “How can I not be myself?”
As I move through the world, I make choices that demonstrate to the world my identity. At what point should my actions be consistent enough that ‘who I am’ is recognizable? Am I not a full person if other people don’t know ‘who I am’?
The conclusion I have arrived at is that self-discovery isn’t a journey at all, but a complicated waltz between one’s self and society. When you take a step, society reacts. When society takes a step, you must react. And so it goes – never ending, but I’ll never be fully in control.