by John Langstaff
Identity, an English teacher once told our class, is the sum total of a person’s experiences. I rather like Aldous Huxley’s comment that experience is not what happens to you but what you DO with what happens to you. But it is a chicken-and-egg conundrum: is our identity created by our experiences and how we process them – or are those experiences drawn to us because of who we already are and who we are becoming?
What relation does the name of anything, any word, bear to that which it attempts to describe? To define is somehow to limit – to imply, by saying what something is, also what it is not.
“Who are you?” This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions a thinking person ever encounters, for it initiates a sort of personal inventory each time we try to answer it. When we wish to give a simple answer, being unwilling or unable to contemplate long enough to do this, we give our name. “I am Sam.” “I am John Smith.” But what relation does our name bear to who we really are?
For that matter, what relation does the name of anything, any word, bear to that which it attempts to describe? To define is somehow to limit – to imply, by saying what something is, also what it is not. That is a tree; therefore, it is not a rock. A tree has branches and leaves. What about that small one over there with few branches and no leaves at all? Yes, that sapling is a tree also; they are both trees. In November, when they have lost their leaves, they will still be trees, and not rocks.
My neighbor’s barn is made of wood, which came, of course, from trees. Even if it is a very new barn, would we think of it as a collection of trees? Not likely, even though that is essentially what its composition is. But certainly these trees look nothing like their former companions out in the field. They have undergone a transformation so radical that to speak of them still as trees would not be at all accurate. Although this wood in the barn came from trees, it has changed form, and a new name becomes necessary if we wish to define it accurately. It is not a grove, like the collection of trees over in the field; it is a barn. And so the new name serves as a reminder that these trees have changed.
Evolution implies progress, and can only be traced in retrospect. Let us simply say that it is transformation. One way of being has been left behind for another; to say that one is “better” than another is a value judgment which we cannot make from our present vantage point.
Even though we do not generally attribute sentience to trees, their experience is now different from what it was when they stood in the field in their previous form. As trees, they swayed in the wind, sheltered crows, were subject to lightning strikes. As a barn, their structure has a collective strength which provides more shelter, and unless the lightning is very severe it is unlikely that they will be harmed by it now.
Is this evolution? Evolution implies progress, a movement toward something. Perhaps evolution can only be traced in retrospect. So let us say simply that it is transformation. One way of being has been left behind for another; to say that one is “better” than another is a value judgment which we cannot make from our present vantage point. It is transformed; it is different yet still retains the essence of its former being (wooden planks – former trees – do not become plasterboard just because we lash them together in a 4′ x 8′ section). Whether it has “evolved” is a question that cannot properly be answered from the current point of view.
Tree becomes board and board becomes barn. With what appellation did you begin your life here? The names we are given at birth would seem to reflect, at that point, the identity or aspirations of those who give the name, rather than the one who is named. Yet this is our basic response to the question “Who are you?” and although we may undergo many transformations (outside as well as inside), this name remains with us throughout an entire lifetime with little, if any, modification to accommodate the changes one’s psyche undergoes. Some people do change their names, of course, to reflect having become someone different; sometimes it is for religious reasons, other times for social reasons – even occasionally to help define who one is becoming (in contrast to who one was at birth). Frank Jones and his son Frank, Jr., come to be called “Big Frank” and “Little Frank” by their community, Vincent Furnier becomes Alice Cooper, Lew Alcindor becomes Kareem Abdul Jabaar, and (more often than not) Sheila Sue Adams becomes Sheila Adams Johnson when she marries. Our name is supposed to designate, if only loosely and approximately, who we are. But obviously it cannot contain or convey an entire identity. No matter what alterations may be made to it, it is still only a sketch-map to the territory and not the territory itself.
So who are you? How do you know who you are? Each person has a unique perspective particular to their own personhood; from where you are, you can see into the past, review your tracks, your metamorphoses, your history of becoming, and make a guess from the patterns of the past as to what the trajectory of the future may be. If we cannot see the “end product” (is there one?) at least we may see what we are in the process of becoming. You know that you are you (even if your name, from this perspective, seems hopelessly inadequate to convey who you are). And you know that you are becoming more and more “you” with each successive change. Each shedding of a previous skin reveals a “you” that is “more you” than ever before. (Again: is this “evolution”? That remains to be seen, but certainly it is transformation, and where there is transformation there is always growth.)
Identity, then, is all these things. It is the whole of our experiences, it is what we are doing with them, and it is the experiences we will have because of it. It is the distillation of one’s essence. It’s who we’re learning to be as a result of processing our personal history so far, and it’s the experiences we will have drawn to us by the force of who we are – all rushing together at a point of convergence called “I.”
© Copyright 2001 by John Langstaff. Republished 2013, 2015.
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