Identity and Being
May 2015
illustration

Portrait
© 

I had been living in London for a few months. Having just reached the Age of Reason, I could comprehend neither the anger nor the heartbreak my mother had to bear when my father died and left the burden of raising four young children on her shoulders. I grew up watching and absorbing the sacrifices she made to survive, working a considerable number of hours each week in order to feed, clothe and provide a roof over our heads. From the perspective of the child I was, I believed that ‘home’ was an environment where I had to follow rules and schedules, and accept the suffering and unhappiness my mother's life entailed, in which she was alone, with no adult companionship, love or sex. She was strict and a disciplinarian, an indispensable necessity for us all to hold our shit together. Until the day when the shit hit the fan!

‘Home’ was not a place for play. Yet, how impatient I was as a child to grow up.

During my early childhood, when I lived with my grandparents, I was the youngest in the household by fifteen years or so. The grownups spoiled me. No matter how much I pooped, cried, and threw up, I felt reassured by the safety of my grandparents’ love. My eagerness to emulate the adults was a game because I loved spending time with them. We cooked, washed, oiled our hair and laughed together. Some of the grown up activities held a sense of forbidden fruit; I either did not yet have the coordination and skills, or was not allowed to do by myself. Like when my grandfather drove his car fast around the roundabout (objectively risky in India) or trips to the busy, crowded shops on Commercial Road, where I was as likely to get run over by a motorcycle as by a wandering cow. The most thrilling was being given the responsibility to go to the corner shop to buy cigarettes for my uncle. It was fun. Of course, I also integrated their beliefs without thinking. For example, my grandfather's belief that education for women was useless. He'd raised his daughters with the sole aim that they would have an arranged marriage, bear children and take care of the home. Where was the need to go to school for that?

We construct our identity from numerous environments that surround us, from siblings, parents and relatives, to teachers, friends and neighbours. If we stand back, with some objectivity, it seems obvious that the beliefs we assume as part and parcel of our identity (our personality, character, values, likes, dislikes, preferences, etc.) is a close, if not duplicate, amalgam of the primary adults from our childhood. People might have even commented how ‘you look just like your dad when he was your age.’ And although we go through a period in our teens when we want to mould our individuality, screaming ‘I'm never going to be like you Mum!’, how many of us fear we are exactly like our mother a decade later?

One of the greatest challenges occurs when we move from being students of life (at school, college, university) to being grown up. Once we get a job, we are exposed to a wider, more complex world in a single leap. We meet people with very different sets of beliefs from our own, who bring whole lifetimes of incomparable experiences, and suddenly, we are supposed to know the answers, be an expert and not make mistakes. Society expects us (and we expect ourselves) to be responsible, to earn a living, own a home, get married, have our own children, and so on. Is it any wonder that we lie to cover up the truth that we don't have the perfect solution to every problem we are presented with. We don't actually have a clue who we are or what our lives really mean.

In fact, in spite of my impatience as a child to grow up fast, now that I've made it as a ‘grown up’, I spend a lot of energy running away from responsibility!

What we don't realise as adults is that around the age of seven, that magical Age of Reason, we've already constructed most of the beliefs we have about ourselves. Our construct and identity forming is important for us to feel safe and to belong. We cannot survive on our own. It is the solidification of this identity in adulthood that stops us from learning and growing. The consequence is that we tend to remember our past primarily as negative events that threaten our physical and psychological ‘survival’ — the arguments, disappointments, upsets, and conflicts. Yet there is also a part of us that suspects there must be more to life.

I have spent years searching to find myself, wanting to understand who I am and what my purpose in life is. Traditional forms of counselling, psychotherapy, and psychology, can and do help us to unravel and understand the past from an objective standpoint, however, understanding has been the booby prize. Therapy has its limitations because our memories are too unstable and fallible for us to form an unbiased ‘whole’ picture of past events. By reasoning out and making sense of what did not make sense before, therapy often allows the mind to entrench another set of beliefs in order to explain why we are the way we are. In reality, no matter how objectively and logically we are able to look at past memories, they are incomplete. The examples I used at the start of this blog are merely tiny moments from a lifetime of lived experiences, mostly ‘unconscious.’ It is impossible for me to recall a more ‘rounded’ picture of events, even if I invent a fiction, because I know that my sisters have alternate versions of the same events, and sometimes without any crossover points.

To ‘understand’ the past is asking the wrong question. The aim is not necessarily to make sense of it; rather it is how to renegotiate our relationship to our memories in the present. It is asking: How can I open myself to accept that who I am is not a solidified set of beliefs?

People often use the phrase ‘let go’ as a way to release beliefs that are no longer constructive or useful (i.e. the one I have about women's education being useless), but letting go is not a done deal just because it's what we desire. Re-negotiating with ingrained beliefs requires engagement, not avoidance or ignorance. In a way, we need to undo our thinking and melt our sense of ‘self’ into a more pliable and fluid form. It is a more playful attitude of experimenting with ‘doing’ and ‘being’ without assumptions, and then acknowledging what we find.

Perhaps at first, ‘being’ sounds too airy-fairy and absurd. It's one of those concepts that hippies use to run away from life's responsibilities. ‘Being’ for me is about questioning my sense of ‘self’, that entity, soul, spirit (whatever you name it) that I usually take far too seriously. The ‘self’ is a construct of the mind, and often, I feel that the ‘stress’ of modern life is just my ego constantly worried about how I look, sound, and feel; how I show my brand of identity to the world. For example, when I'm engaged in enjoying the ‘doing’ of dancing, drawing, painting, or writing, I have an experience of ‘forgetting’ the self. I find pleasure in the moment and do not worry about how I look or what people think of me. We often speak of how ‘time flies when we're having fun.’

So why not relax and question your assumptions about what the reality of our experience is with a light heart? Perhaps even take education, knowledge, and meaning out of the picture. Simply engage in doing what you enjoy and be ‘un-self-conscious.’ See what you find. We use so much energy to hold tight to our identity, it is exhausting, and it is exhausting our potential to be a creative phenomenon. Why not let go and give your ‘self’ a break?