Monday, December 12, 2005

Who Are We, Anyway?

Some years ago I had a friend named Marion. Marion was raised in a happy, mostly functional, Texas Christian household. Growing up, she did what most of her peers did. Learned, dated (guys named Billy Bob, most likely), cheerleaded – in short, grew up.

Her identity was, as expected, in large part the result of her upbringing. I’m sure at some point she expected to marry one of the Billy Bobs, raise a number of blond-haired children and hammer back her share of Lone Star beer. She was, in short, a terrific Texas gal with a solid basis in Americana.

That, however, was from Marion’s inside out. From the outside in, things were quite different. Marion is Asian; Chinese to be specific. I’m not sure that I ever heard all the details but Marion had been adopted by her Texas family at birth. I would sit, fascinated, and listen to Marion’s stories about how amused (and perplexed) she was when people considered her Asian. Inside, she was “Betty Jo” through and through. But very few who knew her could see or appreciate that “what you see ain’t what you get.”

I remember her telling me that, when she graduated high school and went to college, Asian students would approach her frequently, inviting her to join the Asian Studies League(s). They were astounded at her lack of interest. They simply just couldn’t understand why “Asian concerns” were of no – well – concern to her. Add to that the fact that Marion was hunting down collegiate Billy Bobs to date and you can imagine that she was considered, to one degree or another, a “traitor.”

I used to ponder this schizophrenic dichotomy from time to time until it occurred to me that, although Marion’s situation was very sharply defined, most of us deal with the same phenomenon on a daily basis. After all, how many of us are seeing the world with very different eyes than the world uses to see us? How many relationships get in trouble because someone is convinced that they are unlovable and therefore can’t experience the fact that the one they’re with actually loves them? How many attractive people mess things up with the opposite sex because they can’t imagine that they’re seen as attractive.

Love and sex aren’t the only arenas in which this drama plays out but they’re a simple way to illustrate the point. (What point? I’m not sure I have one.)

Within the last half year, I lost a great deal of weight. A medium-sized child’s worth at the latest count. The feeling of accomplishment was terrific. But I distinctly remember stepping outside a restaurant (one has to spare the health-fragile from certain death due to second-hand smoke) and watching a group of people walk past me. A thought ran through my head. (A frightening and rare experience.) “These people think I’m this svelte, “normal” guy. I’m not. I’m a fat guy. I’m just wearing a “svelte costume.” Imagine their surprise when I unzip the zipper and 80 pounds comes spilling out over my belt. I’m an imposter. The person they’re looking at simply isn’t me.

My weight and Marion’s roots open up all sorts of questions about identity. On the surface, it would seem simple to say, “you are what you think you are.” But most of us know that that simply isn’t true. I know a lot of people who think they’re terrific. Take my word for it, they’re wrong.

Then again, it would be equally fallacious to suggest that we are, “what we’re perceived to be.” I know a lot of people who think I’m not terrific. Trust me, they’re wrong.

I have no answers. This is all just food for thought. It would be very modern to suggest that there actually might be a place in time in which how we perceive ourselves and how the world perceives us would coincide. Once upon a time, the enlightened among us talked about “getting centered.” When I was rolling my own, many of my friends really needed to, “get their heads together.” Together with what? (Sorry, I can’t shake the images of an old Crazy Glue commercial where a guy glues his hardhat to a rafter, his feet suspended many stories above ground. Maybe he was trying to tell me something.)

I suppose that it’s fair to conclude that identity is a fragile beast. And, as with many things, “it depends on who you ask.” I’m not convinced that any of this is useful, however. I doubt I’d have much luck, when producing photo I.D. for a credit card purchase, if I said to the clerk, “this drivers’ license shows you that I am who I claim to be. In the end, however, I can’t tell you for sure that any claims I make are reliable.”

Even thinking about it is daunting. I need to stop writing now and get my head together.


Blogger knowwhereman said...

Identity is indeed a fragile thing.
But that's also it's beauty. It's light, elusive, fluid, pliable.
Identity is not some massive skyscraper that must be blown up and torn down over months of time
at great expense in order to fashion a new existence for something. Identity can be changed in an instant. The moment you perceive yourself as that svelte, normal guy that others see, you become that person. It doesn't take years (or even days).
It doesn't require assistance from others. Identity is something you control, always and forever. This doesn't diminish the enormous influence that outside forces can exert on our identity. But these forces cannot force a single change in your identity until and unless YOU agree with the outside forces and align your identity with them. If a person lives to be 80 years old that means they will wake up 29,200 times during their lifetime. That's a minimum of 29,200 opportunities to be whoever and whatever they want to
be. If they choose to be the same person day after day, that's
fine. But if someone wants to change any aspect of who they are or what they choose to believe about themselves there are unlimited opportunities to do so. There's only thing holding us back - who we choose to believe we are. I don't know that it would necessarily be a good thing when "how we perceive ourselves and how the world perceives us" coincides. The world around us never knows who we really are. And in many ways, neither do we. This agreement-of-the-unknown between our outside and inside is
likely the only agreement we're
going to find. I'm always amused by these local TV news shows who interview some unknown person while showing their name with some
characterization below their name, like "Sue Jones, Mother" or "Dave Smith, Concert Goer" or "Sally Johnson, Bargain Seeker". A person's entire existence is
trumpeted to the world during their 15 seconds of fame in a neat
two word package.

4:51 PM  

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