Saturday, August 30, 2003

On Identity 

I’ll apologise in advance. This is going to be a rather self centred post. Lately, I’ve been pondering the source of identity, and the only identity of which I really have much experience is my own, so that will have to be the source of my musings.

What sparked it all off was a minor back injury. Usually I cycle to work, but for the last fortnight I’ve joined the great commuting masses in the daily exasperations faced by users of the London public transport systems. I’ve noticed before that on days when I take the train I feel somehow less “me”, but after 2 weeks of it things have felt definitely out of place.

I think its because cycling reinforces many aspects of my identity that are important to me - independence, being “green”, keeping fit, being a little different, being in control of my own destiny. Taking the train makes me one of the crowd, just another caterpiller crawling inot work, subject to the vagaries of the transport system. It seems odd that such a simple choice of action can have such an influence on how I feel. Seeing cyclists as I walk along the Euston Road, I feel guilty, I want to say “I’m one of you really, its just that I can’t be one today”. So the link between what I am and what I do is a two-way link – not only does what I am influence what I do, but what I do influences what I am.

But perhaps that’s because other potential sources of identity are not so strong. Work for instance contributes nothing at the moment. I’ve never been completely comfortable with the idea of saying I’m a “something” – engineer, manager, consultant, whatever. That would seem in some way to reduce the value of the self. But right now work is pretty irrelevant in the identity stakes, because what I do has no value for me (other than a monetary value, which although useful isn’t all that important).

Another source is upbringing. Now I know that a tremendous amount of who I am derives from who my father was. His manner was never directive or overbearing, but just by quietly being who he was, always upholding his principles, always with respect and love for others, his influence was profound. But since he died, a few years ago now, I’ve become conscious of becoming more my own person, if that makes sense.

Family plays a big part of course. Father to my children; partner to my wife; general fixer of things that break; maintainer of the roof over our heads; joint breadwinner. All these are aspects of identity, but they derive from it rather than vice-versa.

But I’ve still not got to the source. I keep getting drawn back to the link between identity and action. In just the same way as, for example, the only real evidence for faith or love is in actions not in feelings, so perhaps identity is indeed in what we do, not in what we may think we are.

If that’s the case, I’d better start thinking very seriously about what I do for the rest of my working life.

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