What is identity, anyways?


I was recently hanging out with a friend who is a mom. It had been a while since we hung out, and I asked her what had been going on in the gaping void of time since I last saw her. She gestured towards her child, toddling his way across a playground, "That's about it," she said. We went on to discuss how she can try to find an identity for herself beyond wife and mother.

This is, of course, an incredibly un-original conversation for two women to have. I've had it with many other child-rearing friends at various stages in their adjustment to motherhood, and expect it will continue throughout my life. (Funny, I don't think I've ever had a guy friend express the same concerns after having a kid...)

I am childless (or childfree or whatever, my cat is my baby but I'll hopefully have human babies one day), but that doesn't make me immune to identity crises. I have often asked myself who I really am, not so much because my entire life has been subsumed by a tiny lump of flesh but because I generally feel like I'm a bumble bee, trying to fly to every pretty flower at once while crazy winds blow in every direction. I get so busy, I don't even know who I am or what is happening to my life.

This all makes me wonder: where the heck does our sense of identity comes from, anyways?

From observation, it seems the answer is that it comes from the things that we do: our jobs, our side-hustles, relationships, and maybe even some of the things we do for fun.

Honestly, that makes me kind of sad. Does it make anyone else kind of sad? Not that we shouldn't have some affinity for the things we spend out lives doing, but that our sense of who we are depends so much on these external factors that can get taken away at any moment.

On one hand, it makes perfect sense. Like Annie Dillard says, "how we spend our days is how we spend our lives." Whether we spend our days shovelling coal, entering data, watching TV, or writing blog posts about identity, that's what we are devoting our lives to.

But if I were to play a game and describe myself in five words, I wouldn't say any of those things. Without stopping to think about it too much, I'd say that I am weird, creative, tall, busy, and proactive.

(Now I desperately want to go back and edit that list - is being tall really so much of my identity that it makes the top 5? Top 3 even?! Why didn't I say feminist? Or independent? Or funny? Or intelligent? Or or or... whatever. Those are the five things that popped into my head and I now must deal with my first impression of myself. At least I didn't put annoying or loud or desperate for validation.)

Chances are I will be all those things, no matter if I lose my job, change industries, lose all my friends, get dumped, become severely injured, or suddenly find my life centred around a squalling infant. And yet, any one of those life changes would leave me feeling, at least temporarily, completely lost and clamouring for some sense of "me".

I'd still be weird, creative, and tall, but if I can't express those things, then what?

Confession time: I have no idea how to end this post. I figured I would work through this identity thing as I wrote and come to a conclusion. There is no conclusion. Identity seems to be bound up in both internal and external factors, and some are more vulnerable to being lost than others, which is just kind of terrifying.

Maybe this is the conclusion: just like everything else, our sense of identity is bound to change over time. The best we can do is roll with the punches, and try to hold onto the core elements that matter most to us, even if we have to find new ways to express them.


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