November 14, 2008

A Panorama, Not A Profile

It is possible that sometimes a book comes along and changes your life.

In the novel Immortality, by Milan Kundera, Agnes encounters a women in the sauna who vociferously proclaims her love of cold showers, and just as passionately makes it clear she detests modesty. This leads Agnes to reflect on the nature of identity.

Because our self-identity is such an insubstantial, undefinable, slippery and intangible concept, people are forced to carve out concrete signs of who they are and project them outward into the world. This passionate vocalization of ourselves not only allows those around us to categorize us, it just as importantly provides us with our own understanding of who we are.

We live in a dichotomous society, one that constantly divides us into us and them. We love lists, we go crazy for rankings. Think of the enthusiasm with which sports fanatics, political party members, religious followers, and fanboys devote themselves to the objects of their obsession. We tend to think that we join groups because of our desire for companionship and affirmation. But I think Kundera highlights an even more fundamental agent at work. We have a need to know who we are:
When we are thrust into the world just as we are, we first have to identify with that particular throw of the dice, with that accident organized by the divine computer: to get over our surprise that precisely this (what we see facing us in the mirror) is our self. Without the faith that our face expresses our self, without that basic illusion, that archillusion, we cannot live, or at least we cannot take life seriously. And it isn't enough for us to identify with our selves, it is necessary to do so passionately, to the point of life and death. Because only in this way can we regard ourselves not merely as a variant of the human prototype but as a being with its own irreplaceable essence. That's the reason the newcomer needed not only to draw her self-portrait but also to make it clear to all that it embodied something unique and irreplaceable, something worth fighting or even dying for.
In order to feel secure in our identity, we must delineate ourselves clearly for all to see. Thus we become secure in ourselves. Upon reading the book, I immediately became self-aware of numerous examples of this behavior. I have ever since tried to cull these idiosyncrasies, to try and avoid branding myself. I now notice that other people pick up on certain life choices, my veganism for instance, and link them to my identity. But although veganism is an important part of my lifestyle, I do not define myself by my veganism, or try to project that as part of who I am.

We are not the groups and labels we choose for ourselves. So who are we? We are the way we treat people. We are the way we react to bad news. We are the amount of emotional empathy we give to those around us. We are our sense of humor, our sense of fair play, our sense of entitlement. We are our perceptions, tied to our memory. We are our full selves, impossible to contemplate in our total panorama, but only viewable in profile. And every time we force ourselves into the narrow categories provided us by society, we are losing parts of our full dimensionality.

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