There was a time when I believed that the best phases of my life were periods in which I clearly knew the answers to existential questions of identity. I thought that I was “doing good” if I was moving in a direction that reaffirmed my sense of who I am, what I’m doing and where I’m going. I was most comfortable in my ability and most satisfied with myself when I was able to define myself with ease. But when those all-important questions went unanswered, I always felt “lost” or “directionless.”
Now, I think that all we should ever be is lost. I think being directionless, in that specific context of identity, is magnificent. I think not being able to define yourself is the only time you truly do justice to the complexity of human nature.
There was a quote by Katherine Anne Porter — snuck casually into the second season of the show “One Tree Hill” — which made all the difference to me this summer. It went like this:
“There seems to be a kind of order in the universe … in the movement of the stars and the turning of the Earth and the changing of the seasons. But human life is almost pure chaos. Everyone takes his stance, asserts his own right and feelings, mistaking the motives of others, and his own.”
By “human life,” Porter isn’t referring to the institutions and constructs that we have built together as humankind. To me, Porter’s words echoed the internal mayhem of constructing our individual identities. And the contradiction arises from the fact that we accept the chaos that comes with a human identity, but we never embrace it. We never stop chasing clarity or pause the journey toward what we believe to be the singularity of identity — a state so completely defined, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed that we forget that it may not be an actual destination.
Maybe it’s the mega-saturated recruiting scene at UC Berkeley, or maybe it’s just the novelty of new experiences and expanding horizons, but over the last two years, I’ve thought a lot about what it is that I bring to the metaphorical table. What do I have to contribute? If the moment ever came, how would I pitch myself?
I thought the act of being preoccupied with how I would define myself represented growth. I thought that being able to condense my 20 years of life and learning into an elevator pitch was unique and clarifying. The faster I figure out where I’m heading and who I am, the better it is, right?
Sounds great, except that we may all be chasing an ideal that doesn’t exist. The greatest thing about identity is its fluidity: the fact that everything we know about it with a certain degree of surety is accompanied by a caveat of “for now.” I have a set of aspirations, expectations, values and opinions that define me for now, in this very specific snapshot of time. But to move toward a concrete identity is to box yourself into categories of your own making, to eliminate the space you get from the impermanence of the “for now” lifestyle and to absorb additional pressure to act according to the identity that you have rigidly defined for yourself. It’s an exercise in increasing predictability.
We may never know who we are. But would that be the worst thing?
To never know who we are means to never be complacent about further discovering yourself. To never know where we are going means having the ability to switch life trajectories for no other reason than that you want to. To never have a list of must-have demands from life means a higher frequency of introspection to make sure your current desires are still relevant and aligned.
The greatest thing about identity is its fluidity: the fact that everything we know about it with a certain degree of surety is accompanied by a caveat of “for now.”
This is different from being unambitious. In fact, it’s unfettered ambition. To be able to switch your goals and to aspire for different things every day without feeling like you are noncommittal or wasting time is the true embracement of human chaos. Every day, I switch between ambitions of wanting to cause a paradigm shift in genetics to writing the next great Indian novel to quitting everything to be a panda caretaker, and that is OK.
The idea that we must define ourselves stems from the adage that we are all individually unique. And to me, that’s a half-truth. Who I am (for now) has not evolved in a vacuum. I have not built this version of myself from scratch. Instead, I’m a patchwork quilt of every interaction I’ve ever had, including the seemingly insignificant, fleeting ones. Humans are malleable and retentive. We allow others to leave behind parts of themselves within us. In our own ways, we are all historians of habit.
While it’s easy to see the manifestations of important influences in our lives on our identity, there are so many pieces of individuals we still harbor from interactions that have long since flamed out.
Sometimes when I’m thinking too hard, a nervous tick is to parse through my hair for split ends and break them off. It’s almost subconscious now, but that’s a habit I picked up from a friend I made in fourth grade. She taught me how to identify split ends; I hadn’t even known what they looked like. And even though we are no longer in touch now, a decade and many strands of hair later I still think of her every time I give in to my habit. One may advise that split ends don’t make for refined identities, but what are we if not a collection of mismatched habits, ideologies and experiences?
Similarly, my secret favorite artist (you know, that one artist that you keep to yourself because you don’t want others infringing on your favorite songs with their personal experiences?), was introduced to me by the daughter of my old art teacher. We were not friends; she was way older than I was. But I spent hours trying to tell the voices of individual singers apart in that boy band because she thought voices had personalities. When I discover an artist now or when the old favorites play on shuffle, I remember her and her strange habits that she somehow passed on to me. These instances always make me wonder whether there are habits or bits of myself that I have passed on to the people I have met fleetingly.
These bits and pieces that we choose to imbibe and discard are histories of habits that we carry encoded within us. They have evolved and honed themselves for god knows how long before we absorbed them. And we have accumulated them like mutations within ourselves. Interactions don’t cease during the course of our lives, and our environments don’t remain unchanged; how, then, would identity, which is heavily influenced by something so dynamic, ever stabilize? And more importantly, why would we want it to?
Tennessee Williams wrote, “When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”
To be alone, to even consider yourself alone, is a mistake. You (your identity) cannot exist alone in a continuum. We carry the evolution of human thought and character encoded in our identities. We are products of eons spent deriving meaning from our environments. I hope I never run out of questions to answer about myself. I hope I’m never able to reduce myself down to a 60-second elevator pitch. And I hope I never lose the parts of myself that are inexplicable while chasing an imaginary singularity.