Who and what

WEDNESDAY, 1 OCTOBER 2003

Identity is like an external logo (or collection of badges) that we carry around and display in order to show others who we are. Identity also helps us understand the relationship between us and our environment and everything and everyone that is part of it. What we are, on the other hand, goes much deeper than who we are. I furthermore believe identity is a survival mechanism that our species have developed in the process of evolution, because earlier mechanisms that had the same function as identity today have to a large extent become obsolete.

Each one of us can run down a whole list of things that can convince everyone who wanted to know that I am not Ronald Reagan, and you’re probably not Napoleon Bonaparte. We have names, nationalities, possibly occupations, home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, identity numbers, passport numbers, credit card numbers, addresses, blood types, almae matres, memories of high school, interests, favourite vacation spots, ambitions and dreams … just to name a few. But none of these things, or all of them thrown together, is more than just information about us.

A plant, no matter how deep its roots go into the soil, is not the soil. The plant remains a plant, and the soil remains soil. Our identities may be somewhat similar. The plant needs the soil in order to survive in the garden. We – flesh-and-blood, mentally alert, animated creatures – need identity to survive, in the first place, and beyond that, to function properly in the environment where our lives are being played out. All the elements from which an individual identity is compiled are bigger than just the individual and his or her identity: language, nationality, ancestors, history and so forth. The way an individual extracts – as it were – elements of identity from their environment, is thus, in a sense, similar to a plant that extracts nutrients from the soil in order to survive.

If formulating your true identity is not the end goal, what is? A preliminary response seems to be “place in the world”. No human being can find or define their place in the world without first sorting out who they are in relation to everything around them. Identity is the means to this end.

Why do we want to know where we our “place in the world” is or where we “belong”?

All signs indicate that a tensionless condition is the primary aim of all organisms – including human beings. As we all know, there are more things that cause tension in our lives than we can list in one lifetime. There are things that threaten our physical existence; things that threaten our psychological well-being; the primal fear of disappearing into the nothingness the day we die. Then there’s the cacophony of languages, cultures, subcultures and other differences between us that almost makes one think it must be a miracle that we do not slaughter one another for the sake of our own survival … or rather, that it doesn’t happen more than is already the case. The primary aim of a tensionless condition manifests itself in the desire to feel safe, in the strong urge to protect ourselves.

One relatively effective way to protect ourselves, to feel a little safer, and to feel somewhat better about the possibility of disappearance, is to be around others “like you”. This principle is as old as life itself, and it manifests itself in nationalism, religion, blood is thicker than water, friendships, subcultures, the way wild animals of the same species cluster together, and the barking of dogs in the night.

The need for safety stimulates the need for belonging. In order to develop a sense of belonging we need information about ourselves – hence the search for identity.

The problem is that this “search for identity” is often a lengthy process, and the desire for security – like the reasons to fear for our lives – cannot wait until you’re able to shout your real name from the rooftops.

What on earth can help to make this process less traumatic, to relieve your anxiety if you don’t quite know yet who you are and where you fit in? In other words, what can stifle your anxiety while you are still “looking” for yourself and your place in the world? The answer is as close as the nearest wallet full of bank notes: MONEY.

Why does money – or to have access to more than enough money – make you feel better if you are unsure of your identity? Money reduces the necessity for (well-defined) identity because it satisfies to a significant extent the original need for a sense of personal safety and security. Money buys food, clothing, a roof over your head and doors and gates with latches and locks; money buys the services of a dentist when your teeth ache, help from doctors if something else is wrong, and it buys medicine when you’re sick, and a bed in a good hospital in more severe cases; money buys entertainment, companionship, and in more cases than many will admit, it is also conducive to the development of friendships. To have access to sufficient capital in the long term, is to know that all of the above is available when needed; knowing that all of the above is available when needed, is to feel safe.

Does that mean the richer the guy is, the less he needs to know about himself? Not necessarily. The richer the man, the better the possibility that he will feel his existence, for now, is more entrenched than that of the homeless guy in the sewer. And the better he feels about his chances of survival, the less urgent the need for alternative measures to achieve a sense of security – namely the belief that he belongs somewhere, with someone or a group of people. Appearing outside the comfort and protection of his inner sanctum may reduce his sense of security, which will stimulate the need to show where and how he belongs – that he is [X] in an environment where most people have some understanding of what [X] means. Of course, money will prove to be particularly useful in the acquisition of appropriate (and in many cases prepackaged) Badges of Identity – widely available on the Internet, from mail order catalogues, or from a choice of conveniently located and gleaming shopping malls.

Whatever the difference between the child of wealth and the children of the rest of society when it comes to identity, nothing changes the fact that, even if you can write a book about your own identity and your personal agenda in this world, it still does not encompass the whole truth about what you are.

In terms of matter, you are so many pounds of meat, so many litres of blood and so many meters of skin. And do you really need scientists to show you to what extent you’re the same as a dog or a baboon?

The question of WHO you are, is as practical as the correct wrench in a workshop: It serves a purpose, and the purpose is a sense of personal security.

WHAT you are, is more difficult to grasp. If we are just so much flesh and blood and skin and bones less or more than our pets, with (most of the time) a brain that is more developed, then even I must consider whether or not I’m wasting my time doing what I do. Then it makes perfect sense to shamelessly chase after money and grab as much cash as we can for no reason other than the security, entertainment, comfort and convenience it can buy.

So what, one must eventually also ask, if we are only so many pounds of meat and bone more or less than a wild animal, and nothing more? Or is the fact that our brains are so much more developed, so important that similarities in biological composition between humans and other “less developed” life forms really does not matter outside the laboratory?

Another question: How does it affect our ambitions, our view of society, our dreams for the future, our hopes for the next generation, were we to believe that nothing lies beyond our physical existence, if the meaning of life and definitions for good and evil must be found within what we think and feel and experience – individually, and as individuals in community with others who have similar experiences? And how does it change the subject if it would seem – beyond a reasonable doubt – that our more developed brains are an indication that humans are part of something that stretches beyond what includes giraffes and cockroaches and spiders?

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