With consciousness comes self-awareness, and with self-awareness the notion of identity. Who are you?
Those who ask the question of themselves have recognized that their identity is incomplete, or perhaps, they've discovered, is fundamentally incorrect. We all have an identity. But we don't all recognize it, or how it defines our choices. So, I really wanna know, who are you?
Initially, we receive our identity from our circumstances. I am a child. I am a step-child. I am an orphan. Whatever our circumstances, we have a distinct identity, but generally lack the context to have any awareness of the significance of this first step.
Of course, before this realization, or perhaps, at the same time, through our bodies, we discover our gender identity. I am a boy. I am a girl. Interestingly, if we mark this as our very first identity, then we may recognize that we live in a time where politics has been oriented around first-principles. What is gender identity, who has the right to define it, and as it is defined, who has the right to assign that identity to an individual? Something less than twenty years ago, the answers were "boy or girl," no one defines it, it's just a fact of biology, and the assignment is made by your anatomy, affirmed by doctors and your parents. Simple. The reality being debated now is no longer so simple.
So, for the vast majority of us over twenty, our initial identity was likely to be an amalgam. I am a son. I am a daughter. Perhaps, I am a step-daughter.
Traditionally, through the influence of parents, close family or peers, our next step is to identify through sports. I am a baseball or football fan. My team is the Atlanta Braves. Or, I play hockey, or soccer or football. Sports identity can become foundational, to the degree that even when we move on from the origin of that identity, we retain it. Who are you?
Depending on our family heritage, we may also receive another identity; that of religion. I am a Christian. I am Protestant. I am Catholic. I am Lutheran. In the politics of our time, it has become increasingly important to expand the range of valid U.S. religious identities to include all religions. Although it is part of our foundational truths that all Americans should be free to practice their faith, U.S. history makes it clear that religious identities outside Christianity -- still -- are not considered first-class citizens.
This cultural war has been ongoing for several decades now, with lines drawn first around the celebration of Christmas -- is it OK to say "Merry Christmas" to your colleagues? The right to any and all religious identities is also at the forefront of our current political debates, and as with gender identity represents a return to first-principles. Which religious identities are valid? Who defines religious identity -- are non-traditional religions cults, or equally valid? What is "non-traditional" -- how old must a religion be to be "a tradition"? Are all religions equal, or are are some more valid than others? Here we venture into notions of truth. What are the fundamental truths? How do we value and measure these truths with respect to religious traditions?
Before we get to political identity, it is far more likely that you identified yourself, in addition to sport, relationships and gender, by a hobby. I am a ballerina. I am an artist. I am a gamer. With this step, we have taken our first tentative steps into defining our own identity -- based on what we want. And as what we want shifts, we may discard these identities and form them anew. I am a programmer. I am a motorcyclist. I am a writer. I am a hunter.
At an increasingly early age, we begin to understand our sexual identity, and expand our gender identity in terms of sexuality. Traditionally, the acceptance system has been simply: I am a boy who likes girls. I am a girl who likes boys. Binary. Simple. But the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s ushered in the freedom to openly express sexual preferences, and with this increasingly public expression, we've seen the binary system bifurcate, and then split again and again. Gay and Lesbian, transitioned (perhaps simultaneously?) to Bi-sexual. With Katy Perry announcing that she "kissed a girl," the cultural attitude toward the notion of "lesbian" began to shift toward open acceptance. Political support for gay marriage offers the measure of acceptance within the U.S. And, with Bruce Jenner's transition and the political shift that has occurred over just the last few years, the transexual identity has become the latest front in the sexual revolution -- which bathroom can you use? Here too, we're working our way back to first-principles.
Of course then, we have political identity. Traditionally: I am a Republican. I am a Democrat. Simple. Binary. More recently, we have found these political divides have become ambiguous, and the political machinery has recognized that polarization is the key to energizing constituents. To this end, mobilizing supporters around a brand has become the norm, "I am a Hillary supporter." or simply "MAGA." To fail to realize that our political identity has become as fundamental to us as our religious, sexual or gender identity, and yet to also fail to realize that it may be no more valid than our sports identity puts us, as a society, in great peril. Who are you? Why? What do you believe... really? Why? In this era, we have seen tremendous fear... this fear should tell us something about the depth of our understanding. But rather than work toward first-principles here, we are generally very quick to lean on the validity of our political identity. As with religious identity, this is a space that is far too complex to navigate, and the risk of discovering conflict with our "team" far too high.
Once we have matured into each of our identities, we risk much in deeply assessing their validity. And we risk even more in moving to change our most deeply held identities.
But there are still safe areas where we can explore and expand our identity. As we move toward adulthood, we are likely to form a new identity based on our vocation. I am an electrician. I am a Physicist; perhaps, first, I am a college student. I am a Psychiatrist. I am a farmer. I am a poet. I am a sculptor.
Next on our journey, some, earlier than others, most will identify with a relationship. Here, we venture into a shared identity. I am a boyfriend. I am a girlfriend. I am a husband. I am a wife. Here too, traditional relationships have been radically expanded. Complicating matters is that this identity is a dance -- the partners or group must agree on their mutual identity to give it validity. Who are you? To have defined yourself as a husband, or a wife, and then to go through divorce is to witness the dissolution of your identity, perhaps violently. One moment you were one, the next... what are you now? ...I am single? ...I am divorced?
Although becoming married is increasingly no longer a generally accepted criteria for becoming a parent, the tradition here has been to adopt the "married" identity with the expectation that one would soon become a parent. I am a father. I am a mother. Here, this relationship identity is a one-sided choice. And, although it is a shared identity, once made successfully, it becomes permanent. Once established, no circumstance may alter this identity. Because of this, this identity may become more fundamental and more foundational than any other. And yet, as we have seen in the evolution of our culture, it is insufficient.
Beyond politics, and often, because of it, we begin to recognize our place in the larger world. I am an American. I am a citizen of the world. I am a human being. Or, feeling alienated, perhaps we identify, I am an alien.
Who are you?