Who are we without the mirror?
What is identity? It seems almost like a silly question. I think unless you’ve had some sort of identity crisis it doesn’t even occur to you. But it’s one of those things that’s actually quite impossible to define. When I was a little girl, I had an assignment to write an acrostic poem of my name using modifiers I felt suited me. T- talented; A- artistic; N- nice; I- intelligent; A- Hmmm…I don’t actually remember what I put for the second A. In a way, this was a proto exploration of identity.
When you’re a kid, you begin to internalize messages you get from the people around you. A parent tells you you’re smart. Then a teacher does. Then friends of the family. Pretty soon these adults act as your mirror. You begin to see these traits in yourself. You find evidence to support and confirm that bias. You begin to believe it. It happens to everyone. It’s totally natural and usually pretty accurate.
These traits lead you in a direction. You begin to pursue activities that fit these traits. Occasionally someone gets it wrong and that can be wounding. Someone might see a bad grade on a math test and tell you that it’s not your strong suit. Pretty soon you decide you’re “bad at Math”. Maybe you try out for a team and don’t make it. Then you decide you are not athletic. It often happens that I get a student who declares they are “tone deaf” or a “terrible singer”. As an expert in this field, I always consider the source. I ask why they believe that. It often dates back to an older sibling who was a child at the time. People say things in an off-handed way and don’t realize the damage they are inflicting.
But none of this is really what I consider to be at the heart of the discussion. Let me share a personal experience to illustrate: When I became pregnant for the first time, I was very excited. I couldn’t wait to be a Mom and I had all sorts of fantasies about it. I embraced being pregnant, fully. My Mom bought me a whole wardrobe of cute maternity clothes. My then-husband and I moved into a wonderful home for our growing family right up the street from my parents. I was planning the nursery decor. Then, at 24 weeks, the unthinkable happened. I lost the baby. But that wasn’t all I lost. I lost the role of being a mother. The most important role I had ever played had been ripped from me. It left me in turmoil. I felt a huge vacuum in my existence. It put me into a full-blown identity crisis. Grief is bad enough. Shock is bad enough. But in addition to both of these, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. See, like most people, I defined my identity by two things: roles and attributes. When this role was taken from me, what was left?
If you ask someone to define their identity, they will usually begin by listing their roles. Mine would be this: I am a mother, a daughter, a friend, a teacher, a singer, an artist, a martial artist, a cancer survivor. All these things are true but do they actually define me? I used to be a granddaughter. It was an important part of my life. Then, one by one, my grandparents passed. I am no longer a granddaughter. I pray my other roles will remain because they are important to me.
If you press a person further than their roles, they will usually go to attributes, like my acrostic poem from grade school. I would say I’m compassionate, artistic, intelligent, kind, ambitious, conscientious, etc. If you press again, an exasperated person might resort to a list of their favorite activities, their likes. But again, this isn’t identity, per se.
We are clearly unique individuals. We share things in common with others, of course but each of us is unique. In the days, weeks and months after I lost my baby, I found myself seeking activities that took me out of my reality. It wasn’t actually escapism, as it might seem. I painted every day and I did yoga every day. I didn’t journal. I didn’t sing. The things I chose put me in a type of unconscious state. It was a connection to something greater than I am, in and of myself. In that connection, I believe I discovered my true identity. I was able to sense that there was something that made me uniquely me. What was it? I don’t know. A soul, a consciousness, an energy signature…? I’m not sure there is an actual term for it. So does it exist if we can’t name it? Are we really so Aristotelian in our thinking? It’s a little like the tree falling in the forest. I believe, based on my own exploration, that yes, it does. There is a divine spark in each of us. A numen in our existence. And I believe it is that thing that transcends our earthly life. It’s a cosmic concept, to be sure. I don’t expect anyone to believe as I do. But I do feel it is important, if not downright imperative to discover your truest identity. There is a peace that comes from it that is unparalleled.