When I ask you to consider the word ‘identity’ what images come to your mind?
If you’re like most people you probably get a mental image of yourself, perhaps the image of looking at yourself in a mirror. Perhaps you think about the voice in your head, or better yet- your goals and aspirations for the future. Perhaps you think of elements of your character you don’t like, things you wish you could change but haven’t found the will just yet: regardless, we each have a different mental representation of ‘identity’.
With that in mind, I’d like to ask you to consider a different kind of identity: collective identity. Cultural identity. Societal identity. Think about your identity within the groups you belong. Does the image change? Is there conflict between these two characters? It’s an interesting thought, but admittedly not where I’m heading with this post.
Before we can begin to look at ourselves I think it’s important to get clear on the context: our culture, and our extended world. If you find yourself wanting to start from the inside out rather than the outside in, hold that thought: I’ll be returning to it.*
All too often we view life as a zero-sum game. Win or lose. Pass or fail. Job or no job. Happy or sad. Celebrity or nobody. Talent or average. Healthy or sick. But is life really like that?
One can’t help but notice the paradox in some of our episodes. A child comes home from school, upset that they’ve received poor marks on a homework assignment. They’re distraught because they’ve just had the realization that they aren’t quite the infallible genius they once thought, and that, regrettably, they’re quite average at correcting comma splices. They confide in their parents about these things, and what will they do? They’ll sit them down and encourage them with endless reassurances. “It’s okay if you’re not a genius- I’ll love you no matter what, even if you’re not famous or a best-selling author, you’re my kiddo and that’s what’s important,” only to flop back down on the couch and return to another episode of American Idol. We live in a culture obsessed with celebrity and status and fame and money.
And violence. Incidentally, we also live in a world running hot. Turn on the television during primetime, what do you see? Television shows that have people shooting people. Turn on the radio and what do you hear? Rappers talking about people shooting people. What’s on the news? The daily episodes of people shooting people. Boot up a video game and what do you do? Shoot people. Is it surprising that there’s a startling about of gun violence in our country? One can’t help but open a newspaper or get through a television show without seeing these types of images. As a culture, we don’t frown upon guns: we esteem them. We put them in the public spotlight to such a perverse degree that we can’t easily get the message out of our face.
*Why then is it worth considering the outside in? Why not look inside for the answers of identity before looking at the world around us?
(Esoteric territory) .. Because I believe that life isn’t that type of game. As much as our intuitions try tell us, we don’t win or lose as individuals. Life is rarely if ever a game about individual identity. Life is a game about groups, teams, schools, businesses, families, etc. and rarely do people do anything on their own. Even in our most solitary moments we are not alone: we draw from the cumulative experiences we’ve shared with other people. When we feel that we are, I would argue that this is simply another illusion of the ego -that voice in our heads that commands our attention and demands recognition- and I’ll discuss it next time.
And this is part of them problem. We’re all too busy playing the “ME” game instead of the “WE” game. Our culture tells us that celebrity and status are the vogue and generosity is synonymous with weakness. It seems to me that until we can transform how we view the collective society, we have no hope of transforming ourselves.