The question of identity has been plaguing me recently.
I say plaguing because although I often ponder on particular questions, I don’t usually find myself facing them over and over in a daily sense. This question of identity has been a little different because over the past year I have found myself trying to answer it over and over again, and I have hit a funny roadblock.
Before we go any further, I’m going to ask you to take part in a little exercise.
Please would you pull up a blank word document or sticky note (or even a pen and paper!). I’d like you to take a moment to write down three sentences that answer the question: who are you? Pretend you have to give it to someone you’ve just met. Someone who really doesn’t who you are.
Have you done it yet?
Then do it! Seriously! We’re not continuing until you’ve eaten all your vegetables–sorry–written all your sentences!
Great. Now, let me see. How many of you wrote something like…My name is Isabella and I’m a 22 year old student at the University of British Columbia. I work part-time at a local charity that takes in stray animals and I’d like to be a veterinarian. I have two brothers and I love to snowboard.
Name. Age. Occupation. Family status. Interests. I’m going to guess that your answers had at least a few of these aspects in common, if not all of them.
It’s a sound-byte, isn’t it? You go to a party or a conference and someone asks you for your identity. They want to know who you are. So … you tell them what you do.
Not that the information of what you do is invaluable. If you tell someone you are a crown attorney, or a journalist, or a volunteer coordinator, that person is going to glean a little more information from that statement than you are actually giving (read: they will make assumptions about who you are based on what you do).
Now, the reason that this question has been plaguing me over the past year is because, in a way, I have been occupation-less. I have met a lot of new people and they always ask me: who are you? In the past I would have been able to say something like: I’m Cat and I’m studying History at McGill University in Canada. But because my physical condition meant I’d quit work and school and pretty much everything that most of us do day-to-day, I was keenly uncomfortable every time someone asked me who I was, because I haven’t been able to fall back on the old faithful of name and occupation. I was suddenly occupationless, and in social settings where someone asked you who you were, I just didn’t know what to say.
Now, I didn’t feel like I didn’t have an identity: quite the contrary. I spent the year discovering more about myself than I had ever known before. I know better who I am today than I ever have. I just don’t know how to package that up for a stranger.
This made realize something. If you gave me that slip of paper on which you just wrote three sentences about who you are, and I read it, the truth of the matter is…I still have no idea who you really are.
Sure, I might now know your age, your occupation, what you do with your weekends. I can then make assumptions about who you are. But they are still just assumptions and are based less on you than on my own preconceptions of the kind of person who likes to do yoga on Saturdays.
Spending the past year without occupation has made me realize that my occupation is just that: what I do as an occupation. It is not who I am. So it is not really an answer to the question ‘who are you?’. Who I am is a complex myriad of motivations and ambitions and emotions, the sum of everything I’ve ever done and ever felt, and every relationship I’ve ever had.
So yes…I understand why we choose the sound-byte. It’s simple. It’s prettily packaged into three neat sentences that are easily digested by strangers. I just don’t think it’s an accurate answer to that incredibly difficult question: who are you, really?
Not having the sound-byte at my disposal has made me question how I frame my own identity. What it means to be me. So. Who do you think you are, really? How do you frame your identity?