During yesterday’s post on cultural appropriation a thought occurred to me which I decided to turn into a separate post. This is the relevant part:
Like most teenagers or young men, this kid doesn’t know who or what the hell he is, and he’s latched on to his parent’s culture in order to give himself some sort of identity.
It’s important in life to figure out who you are, to carve out an identity for yourself that you’re comfortable with. A large part of teenage awkwardness comes from not being who you want to be and subsequently trying to force the issue instead of waiting to see who you actually become. In my post I gave examples of foreign kids in my school adopting alternative, fantastical identities for themselves, and all teenagers do this to a degree. I have a colleague whose daughter I met when she was 13, only she was convinced she was 21. She attempted to have adult conversations and made a decent fist of it for a few minutes before coming out with something childish and you’d be reminded she was just a kid. It came across as a bit ridiculous, but at that age it didn’t matter. As a teenage boy I remember faking various quirks and character traits in the hope it would make me more interesting (it didn’t). I think everyone goes through this, trying to work out who they are and what identity they’re comfortable with. As I’ve mentioned before, the period between ages 19 and 23 were crucial for my development, having gone into it as a boy and coming out a reasonable approximation of a man (albeit still a work in progress). By the time I was 25 I had a pretty good idea who I was in most respects; I remember somebody at a corporate event telling me I should take part in some activity or other because it was “character building”. I replied that my character was already built, thanks all the same. I might be an obnoxious, opinionated, annoying troublemaker who has deep-rooted issues with authority figures, but nobody has ever said I lack character. By the time I was in my early or mid-thirties, it was locked down and I knew I’d never change. Thankfully, I was happy with who I was and still am.
The same isn’t true for everyone, though. Pretty much all men I know are married with kids and their identities are carved in stone, but I know women who are still uncertain who they are and what they want to be. These aren’t youngsters either, most are in their thirties and sometimes forties. Some have been in a succession of relationships since their early twenties, leaving them with no time to define themselves independently. I spoke to one friend recently like this, and I said she needs a period of being by herself, living independently, so she can figure out who she is and what she wants and only then finding her next boyfriend. Without knowing who you are yourself, how can you expect to find a compatible partner? I’ve noticed a lot of women think their identity will only be complete once they have a partner, happy to leave a whole chunk of themselves blank for the next guy to define. I remain unconvinced this is a route to a happy relationship.
However, one’s identity can change during a relationship, although probably not completely. Over time, a married couple will start to define one another which is very good for the stability of the relationship but can be a problem if it ends. I am good friends with a widow and she’s had to take substantial, deliberate steps to carve herself a new identity having decided, quite understandably, that she didn’t want to be defined for the rest of her life as a heroic, grieving widow. To this end she did some things which were well within her character, but would have been quite out of character were she still married. The more disapproval she got, the more content she was that she was moving on. I am happy for her.
This topic is also relevant to my recent post about single women who “go travelling” alone in middle-age. I’ve noticed this cohort often don’t seem to know who they are, which is not surprising: many have been shoved into the meat-grinder of corporate life and found themselves wondering what the hell they’re doing there. They ask their male colleagues why they’re there, and they reply “for the wife and kids, of course. What about you?” Having spent a decade establishing themselves as a corporate high-flier, it dawns on them they’d rather do something more meaningful, but what? There are no obvious answers, which is why you see them wittering on about spirituality and travelling to exotic locations, where they post pictures of the food on Instagram. It’s a last-gasp effort to build a different identity, and no less forced than a skinny white teenager inserting rap lyrics into his everyday speech.
The other mistake people make is to take shortcuts, and this is far more common than you’d think. Consider how many people on social media leap onto a bandwagon without understanding any of the underlying issues, merely to give themselves some sort of identity and purpose. The narrator in my book expressed skepticism of how deep Katya’s feminist convictions actually ran; she could spout boilerplate feminist soundbites, yet had entered into a disastrous marriage with a polyamorist in order to secure a US residency permit. Hardly the behaviour of a committed feminist, you’d think. When you scratch the surface of modern feminism and movements like MeToo, you see most are using it as a badge of identity in the absence of any other which people might find interesting. This is doubly true for any men involved.
Others take shortcuts of a different kind, which I mentioned in this post:
There is a section of society out there which is not completely stupid (but not particularly bright either) who lack the talent, work ethic, and self-discipline to enter into professional or corporate environments and so attach themselves like parasites to the genuine arts world in order to give themselves some sort of identity. The problem with the arts world – as opposed to say, law, engineering or music – is there is no quality control: anyone can tag along, dress up in costumes, get drunk, take some photographs, and claim they’re an “artist”.
What else is dying one’s hair a stupid colour, covering oneself in tattoos, or growing a silly beard other than a cheap attempt to convince others you have an interesting personality? Out of all the hipsters you see, how many have actually bought into the lifestyle and will stay that way, and how many have just joined in because working minimum wage in a coffee shop aged 30 is otherwise seriously uncool?
What identity you end up with is important, but not so important as ensuring it is one you arrive at naturally and are comfortable with. I’m surprised how many people are out there who either don’t know who they are, or are pretending they’re someone they’re not. You can spot them a mile off, and they don’t make for a pretty sight.