Do you need an identity?
I ask myself this question all of the time. I find identity to be such a nuisance and I often wonder if I am alone.
Why do we need one anyway?
Is Identity Only A Social Convenience?
I think so.
It never ceases to amaze me how often people relate to me according to a perception of my identity that has nothing to do with me at all. I am sure I am not alone in that experience either.
It changes the interaction. Instead of two people being with each other having a conversation when someone relates to you from a perceived identity, they are talking at you and so the interpersonal bridge becomes damaged. Identity may be a social convenience, but it can also be a trust destroyer.
Myths And Identity
Identity wasn’t always like it is today.
Many early human societies organized their communities around myths. Their stories were often promoted some aspect of human development. You could call them the human development industries of their times.
Some myths were created to describe challenges on our path from childhood to maturity. They became a form of communal glue that helped elders shepherd the next generation from dependency to roles of stewardship. Rites of passage were considered important and essential in earlier human societies since they depended greatly on the maturation of the individual.
Survival needs and shorter lifespans made individual maturation an imperative not an option. The result was that:
- they ensured the survival of the group
- they ensured the individual’s survival
- identity was not simply a personal matter
- identity had a reality basis that anchored each individual and the social group in nature
- maturation was a process that helped the group and provided each individual with a way to develop skills and receive validation from the group.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. Many early societies practiced different forms of identity discrimination and other practices that we find inhumane today. Nonetheless, there was still a relationship between reality and identity in earlier human societies that provided a groundedness that we have trouble finding today.
The Evolution Of Societies
It is not the purpose here to romanticize early societies but to notice how disconnected our identities can often be from a sense of reality.
Our modern consumer society ties identity to cultural rather than natural markers. In our zeal to conquer nature we have lost our connection to it and our grounding.
We have also lost our rites of passage and our connection to natural processes.There is no passing of the torch from one generation to the next.
When our connection is to nature, we have an identity formed around something dynamic. Product lifecycles, stock market movement and annual entertainment schedules are not the same things.
Mass culture has a defiant relationship with nature. Since our survival depends on earning a living in the existing system, we will as well.
- natural cycles are ignored, abandoned, and disrespected. We routinely ignore sleep needs which naturally restore us. Our schedules are determined mostly by work and entertainment schedules.
- health practices which require that we respect nature in order to be healthy are routinely ignored. Our bodies are built to live in tune with the seasons. We are meant to eat differently during each season. In the spring, for instance, the foods that are naturally available then, will help us detox.
- ignoring the deeper processes of human maturation. We have many smart people and successful people. We celebrate them. Do we celebrate mature people? In our youth-oriented culture, not so much.
- ignore needs for serious mastery. Grades may signify a type of progress but development is more than passing though a classroom and performing on a test. As Malcolm Gladwell points out convincingly in his book, The Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. Do we provide our young people with a foundation that lets them achieve that?
- ignore self-actualization needs. Are people allowed to form their identities based on their talents and natural relating to the processes of life or do we expect them to have identities that only serve the cultural and economic system? Can we see beyond the existing system to the stewardship needs that we are missing?
The Birth Of Stewardship
Out of necessity, we are beginning to evolve a new human skill: the skill of stewardship. Human society up until now has been very survival oriented. Now we have to change and with it, our notions of identity have to change as well.
What does an identity forged around a groundedness in earth and based on sustainability look like? How do we create identities that have nothing to do with survival when that is what we have known up until now?
What does it do for the interpersonal bridge that is so often broken in human relations when we are in a human culture where we all share the responsibility for sustainability?
Stewardship requires maturity. Can we give up our youth-oriented cultures? Can we recreate deeper human development processes that support mastery and maturity? Can we become long-sighted rather than short-sighted? Can we create cultures of trust?
I do not know the answers, but we will need to find them and I am hoping we will enjoy doing so because they will bring an improved quality of life for many people.