I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. I have taken a seven month sabbatical from writing in this space due to a shitty spring. This past spring was a time of painful revealing, deep disappointment, and shattered perceptions. Now at the end of the summer, as I have started to emerge from this (and I’m not exaggerating) emotional chasm, I realize that it was also a time of growth and metamorphosis. I am not the same person that I used to be. And while I like who I am now, sometimes I mourn this, because I also liked the person I used to be, and sometimes I miss her. It is of course, inevitable when experiencing a period of deep loss and emotional turmoil that you learn from it, you change, you do in fact grow one way or another. And it’s a crazy thing to suddenly be different – maybe it’s not even so noticeable on the outside, maybe someone would really have to be paying close attention or know you really well in the first place to see any difference at all – but all the same the difference is there, and you’re left to reconcile that difference with yourself.
I think a person’s identity is never quite as static as it seems. Certainly, we are shaped by the labels that are given to us and more often placed upon us. But we are also shaped by our experiences, old and new and present stimuli. We are shaped by love and hatred, beauty and pain, care and betrayal. Ironically, sometimes these things come to shape us at the same moment. Recently I read an essay by James Baldwin, in which he was speaking about the African American experience, entitled The Fire Next Time. In his essay Baldwin speaks to race relations between whites and blacks in 1963, before the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Many of his comments are still applicable today, particularly regarding the fear that resides behind bigotry. In referencing the revolutionary times – protests, communism, desegregation – and the fear people have in regard to seemingly sudden change, he says:
“We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. … Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality – the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
I think ultimately one’s identity and imprint in the world comes from these things Baldwin speaks of: how we embrace (or don’t) the beauty of our lives, how we earn (or don’t) our inevitable deaths, how we “confront with passion the conundrum of life. ” These are the questions to ponder and answer when you run into discovering yourself again, and again, and again – as we all do, if we’re only paying attention.
An apropro poem:
When Death Comes
From New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St, Boston, MA 02108-2892, ISBN 0 870 6819 5).
|When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;
when death comes
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
And therefore I look upon everything
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
and each body a lion of courage, and something
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.