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Identity is a Deathtrap
The only way to find your self is to lose it
Growing up I would have told you I wanted to be a computer programmer, like my father. I loved computers and everything they could do, which wasn’t always that much. I’m just old enough to remember playing games on a DOS-based machine with an orange screen. Our first modem was a blazing 14.4K and you had to unplug the home phone to use it, a real inconvenience in those days when the whole family shared one and actually used it to talk to people. I don’t recall what I did on the internet (probably make web pages consisting of bright backgrounds, scrolling marquees, GIFs pulled from other websites, and all the other wonders you could accomplish with HTML), but no one cared; it was exciting! You couldn’t find anything, not even if you asked Jeeves, but you could share your creations with friends if you wrote down the URL on a piece of paper and handed it to them.
Being a tech lover then was like being in a race. These weren’t the times of a slightly redesigned rectangle each year. There were always big new things to get, and you had to keep up just to stay in the race (and the games). As a kid, getting or upgrading a new computer was a necessity. People would compare, and every hertz and byte mattered. I wouldn’t say being a computer geek was cool. The word cool never factored into it. That’s just what I loved. That’s just who I was.
I took programming courses in high school and went to college for computer science. That lasted one semester. Instead I graduated with a degree in business and no idea what I wanted to do. Law school? No (thank God). Management? Meh. Finance? I guess. I took a post-grad fellowship in DC while I tried to figure it out and ended the year no closer to an answer. The only thing I knew I wanted to do was get married. So I did. I followed my wife to Charleston, SC, where for lack of better options, I took a temp job at a software company, of all places, and I’ve been there ever since.
Life has a way of coming back around on us like that. You think you’re heading off in your own direction, but the whole time you were turning back toward home.
And still, I wasn’t happy. I’m still not. The corporate world has never sat well with me. I’m not what anyone would call ambitious. I’m not particularly interested in advancement or money. I moved around internally several times just out of boredom. I was restless, searching for something I couldn’t identify. Some significance. Some purpose. At any rate, something more. After all, wasn’t that supposed to be the point of work—beyond the salary and security—personal fulfillment and the satisfaction of a job well done?
I went looking elsewhere. For me, an intellectual and a writer, the natural places were grad school and the arts. An MFA in creative writing sounded like the perfect answer. And it was fun, maybe the most fun I’ve had as an adult. I’d recommend it to anyone with the time and money to blow. But of course it didn’t quell my wandering restlessness or calm my creeping anxiety or comfort me on sleepless nights. Of course, it multiplied it. Because I wasn’t looking for a job or a purpose or significance. I already had all those. I wasn’t satisfied with them because I wanted something to better express who I was or wanted to be. That is, I was searching for an identity.
When someone asks me what I do, I shrug and mumble something about software, but I’ve always dreamed of telling people I’m an author. It’s a lie that identity, as we use the term, is a private matter, something each person must decide for themselves. In principle that sounds true, but in practice we can never quite make our own judgements about ourselves stick, because having an identity only makes sense in relation to others. If you were the only thing in existence, you would have no identity, as there would be no need to identity you as distinct from something else. But because we are surrounded by a great many people almost exactly like us, we look at them to judge ourselves. We seek their acknowledgement and approbation or else their disdain and rejection. The exact details and reasons don’t matter. Gain the stares of your peers and the likes of your followers, whatever it takes. The chief desire of the human heart is not to be but to be known.
Simply having money isn’t any fun. You have to have nice things, a big house, a fancy car, luxurious vacation photos on Instagram, so that everyone can see how much money you have. Or how little you have (do you drive around in your old Toyota with smug satisfaction?) or how responsibly you use it (why do you think the Prius is so distinctively ugly?). It doesn’t help to think you’re beautiful, you have to display yourself to as many people as possible to be admired. It’s not enough to be funny, you have to make people laugh. It doesn’t satisfy to be smart, to have a degree and a good job in a field I love. I have to write books and a blog so that others can know how smart I am. Because that’s the only way I can really know, you see.
Our identities turn out to be a form of pride. And the defining characteristic of pride is that it never ends. We must always be comparing ourselves to others and putting ourselves up for inspection. We must always be molding ourselves, conforming to some external standard (even a standard of disconformity, it makes no difference; a rebel is an identity all its own). If for a moment other people stop acknowledging me, my identity is lost. We desperately need others and yet they are also our greatest threat. We cannot afford to estrange them or to upset them or to fall behind in whatever we are chasing. The only relief we are offered is to change our minds (find your true self!) and to join some other endless race.
But this is a true no matter how we try to define our identity, whether it is political, racial, religious, sexual, financial, physical or anything other any trait or classification we can invent. Every effort will trend toward the same ends: greater conformity within the group, greater distrust among the members, greater hostility to those without, and greater anxiety inside ourselves. Identity is a deathtrap, a place where pride holds you and consumes you. The more narrowly you try to define it the more restrictive will be your cage. You can’t get out by digging deeper inside yourself, searching for your true self, wrapping the walls closer around you, nor by grasping for new names and groups—every label is a new demand, a new bar in the old cell.
The only way out of the trap is by giving up our identity, and therefore any claim to our own worth, and by living wholly for someone else. This is dangerous, because you can’t know who you will turn out to be or control what others will think of you or choose what you might have to do, but it’s the only way to be known fully and truly, flaws and all, without having to erect distorting walls around yourself. And It hurts. It feels like death. Because it is death. The kind of death, like that of a small and insignificant seed buried in the world, which brings life.
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