The Trouble with Identity

"Difference unites us."

--Andrew Solomon

Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that I am not about to harp on identities or identity politics. Identities do not muck up much all by themselves. Our relationships to them, on the other hand, can create massive suffering. So that is my focus this go-around: how we relate to our identities.

Additionally, I think Andrew Solomon's distinction between vertical and horizontal identities is useful because it helps to clarify what "identity" can and does mean to many people. As he wrote,

Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from one parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms...Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that child does not share with his progenitors.

What I would like to suggest is that all identities, whether inherited from our ancestors or socially constructed in this generation via a subculture beyond the family (e.g., a gay identity for the child of straight parents), have the potential to promote a sense of belonging as well as alienation. In other words, all identities have a shadow side, just like other aspects of life. In the particular case of identity, it can become a short-cut--a cardboard cutout of who we are--thereby significantly limiting our sense of wholeness and freedom, both of which are essential for peace and joy.

For example:

A young man trying to sort out his complicated sexual feelings initially finds spaciousness in a horizontal bisexual identity. When he begins to share this identity with others, he mostly encounters judgments: "You're just afraid to own that you're really gay." "There is no such thing as bisexuality." "Figure yourself out!" He starts to believe these judgments and thinks there is something deeply wrong with him. He is not defective in just his sexual identity, but throughout--he is a flaw. He promptly becomes intimate with shame and inhabits a new identity: messed up. Turns out "messed up" represents a vertical identity, as it has been in the family for generations and fits like a glove, along with "anxious." The "traits" of shame and anxiety were already present in this man's childhood, but now they are full-blown identities. They appear in statements like these: "I am a failure." "I am afraid." Before you know it, a vibrant young life is covered over by all these identities in such a way that the young man has difficulty breathing, let alone inhabiting the present moment, which is dynamic and multifaceted, unlike the identities in which he is now drowning.

I intentionally made this depiction overly simplistic. Like our frequent use of identity labels, this illustration glosses over a lot of the details and context that make up our ever-changing lives. It is two-dimensional. Such reductive versions of people frequently show up in our language: "Well, what do you expect? She's bipolar." "That's because he's trans." "I'm depressed, and this is what depressed people do." "That's the way biracial people think."

In my last post, I proposed that love is synonymous with understanding. In this one, I am suggesting that identities can get in the way of such understanding if we do not use them with caution and care. Identities can help us to feel a part of this world and human condition, to be sure. We can experience an intimate bond with others on account of a shared history and/or way of expressing ourselves and/or way of showing up in the world. But they are not our entirety.

I like a statement about human difference that I heard from Tara Brach at a daylong retreat. She said that we often seek "premature transcendence" in the realm of diversity. We want to gloss over the many ways that our lives differ to feel a connection with others, to arrive at that place of perceiving how our differences unite us. "I don't see skin color," represents a common statement of such mythical unity in this so-called "post-racial" era. Andrew Solomon beautifully captures the texture of both premature transcendence and its counterpart, a radical acceptance of diversity:

Our family rule was to be interested in otherness from within a pact of sameness. I wanted to stop merely observing the wide world and inhabit its wideness.

Our differences can be very beautiful. They can widen our perceptions of what is possible in this world. They can deepen our understanding of the infinite ways to experience this life. They can reconnect us to our own lives by revealing another pathway.

When we make differences a solid entity, however (I am this, forever and always), we start to lose sight of the reality that we are more than the sum of our parts, and the greater whole is noble and worthy of love and peace. To borrow from Jack Kornfield,

Our belief in a limited and impoverished identity is such a strong habit that without it we are afraid we wouldn't know how to be. If we fully acknowledged our dignity, it could lead to radical life changes. It could ask something huge of us. And yet some part of us knows that the frightened and damaged self is not who we are. Each of us needs to find our way to be whole and free.

Each of us needs to find our way to be whole and free. May we therefore each awaken from our narrow storylines of who we are so that we can recognize our own holiness, live from that larger awareness, and recognize it in others. And, may we not make "holiness" or "goodness" or "dignity" into another identity that prevents us from understanding our own struggles and those of others as well as the dynamic nature of love. As Andrew Solomon also wrote, "Love alters all the time; it is fluid, in perceptual flux, an evolving business across a lifetime."