Thursday, December 19, 2013

About the Author and Other Questions of Identity

I recently made some changes to the format of my blog, and in doing so decided to add an "about the author" tab. But then I sat down to write about the author, and ran into trouble. See, how do you actually define identity? I don't know how to answer that question, but what here follows are my attempts to wrestle with that question.

I don't really know what to write here. I feel like an unspoken purpose of this blog is to explore questions of identity and my ruminations on the same. To try and sum up myself in one "about the author" tab would be an exercise in futility, because no matter what or how much I write, it can't hope to be more than an inaccurate over-generalization of who I am.

To that point, can I even really know who I am? Is any definition of self wholly accurate? I don't think it ever can be. So what's the point?

I suppose I could just give you a list of things describing me. You know, typical first date material:

- I'm a grad student at Purdue getting my PhD in English, emphasizing in rhetoric and composition

- I teach college level writing

- I'm 6'2"

- I'm an active and practicing Mormon

- I like reading YA novels

- I like to sleep and run, though not at the same time

- My literary heroes are the bishop in Les Miserables, Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

- If I had all the money in the world and could do anything, I'd probably continue on my current life trajectory, but I'd probably eat out more.

- My favorite dessert is my Mom's cherry pie. (not any cherry pie, my Mom's)

- I love sports, especially BYU sports and the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees.

- My favorite TV show is Psych

- I love flowers and gardening and mowing the lawn

I could continue on in this vein, but is this really who I am? At my deepest darkest center does this really get at the true definition of Samuel James Dunn? I guess there are other things we could talk about here like personality tests and the like.

Type A or Type B?

Type B.

Color code test?


Myers-Briggs Test?

INFP (which means I'm Luna Lovegood, Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and the Tardis)

I feel like a lot of life is dedicated to trying to nail down our identities. Whenever we apply for anything -- jobs, graduate schools, apartments, loans, etc. -- we are forced to include some kind of identity-defining information: a resume and cover letter, a CV, a credit history, a police affidavit reporting past criminal behavior, etc., but aren't all of those things just a shadow of something deeper. Does the fact that worked as a security guard at a museum of art for 3 years really tell you that much about who I am?

Not only do we define ourselves in those professional and higher stakes situations, but we also do it in less serious situations. Social networking sites are constantly encouraging you to define yourself, both explicitly and implicitly. On twitter I describe myself thus, "I crossword puzzle with a pen. I read in the bathroom. I do what I want. potius convincere quam conviciari / ad bellum purificandum." Obviously I don't really think that crossword puzzles and bathroom reading are who I am at my very essence, and my defiant assertion that I do what I want might lead someone to read the whole description as deliberately unhelpful as an identity-defining enterprise. But does my refusal to kowtow to that particular social pressure and instead give some pithy, cliched description of what I like and what I do and what I tweet about actually illuminate some aspect of my identity?

I included above a picture of me that some have said is instructive as to my persona. I have recently started doing some occasional work writing content for G5 Leadership, and this is the picture that was included with my short biography. But does this picture help in describing me? In the picture I'm chewing on a matchstick, I'm talking on the phone, I'm wearing a small child's beanie which doesn't quite fit on my head, I have a concerned/contemplative look in my eye, and at first glance it might look like I have my finger in my nose. But what does any of that tell you about me? What identity is constructed in your mind by looking at that picture? Does the fact that I normally wear glasses change that identity? Does my lack of glasses in this picture make the picture a lie because it isn't representative of what I normally look like? Is my identity affected by my outward appearance, or is my identity some ethereal, unembodied idea that exists outside of corporeal form? If so, should I remove the picture from this post, because it's just a physical mask of the unknowable?

If identity is some noncorporeal entity that exists outside of the cognitive world, why then are we asked to explain ourselves so often? Why is it that when a dead body shows up at the morgue friends and/or family "identify" the body based on physical appearance. (Does that kind of thing actually happen or am I just taking my cues on reality from crime TV? Does telling you that I watch crime TV affect how you perceive my reality?)

Several times now I've asked about how certain aspects of what I do or look like affect your perception, dear reader, of my identity. Is my identity based off of how other perceive me? If so, is it possible to have identity in a vacuum? (If a tree falls in the forest, etc.) When I'm sitting in the tub in my apartment reading Harry Potter all alone, am I identityless? I would say that no, I'm not, but is that only because I am consciously thinking about myself as an identified being? In which case that puts me in the position of an outsider observing my own identity, which then leads back to seeing identity as some intangible something.

This was the end of my abstract somewhat metaphysical thoughts that were born of me trying to write "about the author." I realize that all this talk of identity and "who am I" might make it seem like I'm undergoing some kind of identity crisis here. I'm not. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who I am, even if I'm not entirely sure how to articulate that pretty good handle. Also, I'm pretty convinced that most aspects of what we call "identity" are fluid and changeable, which is part of why it can be so hard to pin down. To this point I think that in many cases our social fascination with authenticity and hypocrisy (are we really who we say we are?) is an unhelpful one. But unhelpful for what? This whole exploration has left me pondering a question that I posed early on:

What's the point? Why is all of this so important? What good does it do to have a handle on your true identity? (Actually "what's the point?" is the only question I posed early on, but the other two help flesh out "what's the point," so I feel like they're important to include.)

I think "the point" here has two faces, one that is personal and one that is inherently social.

On the personal front I think it's important to understand who we are for several reasons, but mostly for the sense of peace and understanding it brings. Maybe this is just important for people like me who take time to be very reflective about life and wonder whether they're doing it right. Having a solid understanding of my identity allows me to have a stronger sense of self-efficacy, or in other words an understanding of the strength and extent of my abilities. It gives me a greater sense of control in a world that is so helplessly chaotic at times. On this front, I think one aspect of my identity that has helped me in this regard is the one afforded me by my religious beliefs.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I feel like I have a pretty good handle on my eternal identity. I'm a child of God. That parent-child relationship that I have with God gives me strength to understand and act in this confusing world. I know that there is a plan and a purpose for this earthly existence. I existed before this life and will continue to exist after it. I am endowed with the ability to choose and act of my own free will. I can be happy by following the teachings and example of the Savior Jesus Christ. Family relationships are at the center of that happiness and are an integral part to my identity. Which leads us to how having a healthy sense of understanding is important socially.

I don't think that our identities are as individual as the word seems to imply. Who we are is very much influenced by the people with whom we associate, the people we idolize, the people we love, and, frankly, all the people we interact with. Who we are isn't so much a question of what we do or what we like or what we say, but how we do what we do, why we like what we like and how we say what we say.

I view the whole project of humanity as one centered on community building. We're all going about our lives trying to establish and maintain relationships, because relationships are really what give meaning to life. (I've recently been toying with the idea that the concept of "home" is as much about relationships of love and acceptance as they are geographical locations. To quote Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, "home is wherever I'm with you.") In religious terminology, we're going about seeking to establish Zion. Not necessarily a Zion defined geopolitically, but a Zion defined as a group of people that are "of one heart and one mind." That can be interpreted to sound cultish and scary, but I don't take that to mean some kind of singular, hive mind existence, but rather a society where we all have the same goals and the same aspirations, a society whose aim is to work for the common good of all selflessly. We all bring our vast differences of identity to work together to ensure that there are "no poor among us," "poor" being defined broadly in physical, monetary, spiritual, and social terms. That kind of community building effort requires people to work together with charity and understanding.

Much of our ability to interact and cooperate and work together with other people is born of our ability to understand and gauge our own identities. Knowing who someone else is helps us to know how to act, how to engage, and how to communicate. That's why rhetoric and composition scholars are so interested in understanding and teaching students to understand their audience.

Coming to an honest understanding of our own identities, our strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and foibles enables us to allow for similar depth of character in others. When we allow others to have depth of personality, character and identity, then we realize that we can't really know someone else entirely, just as we can't know ourselves entirely. Coming to realize that we can't really know someone else helps us to forgive others when they wrong us. It helps us to see others, not as vicious, but mistaken. 

Now this clearly isn't an accurate description of the way the world works in actuality. But to me it's what we should all be working towards. At least it's as good an explanation as I can come up with to justify my constant musings on questions of identity.

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