Identity. It’s only eight letters, but it’s a big word. It’s a word that has gained new meaning over recent years; as the human identity has become multifaceted; subject to the influence of the online world. We are no longer simply a member of a community, someone to our loved ones or members of a faith; we now exist in multiple communities and social circles, have the potential to share our beliefs and identify with the beliefs of millions of others at the click of a button and have the ability to manipulate the presentation of who we are to sell ourselves online.
In the fields of psychology and sociology, identity is studied from multiple standpoints; as a word that describes the groups to which we assign ourselves, a word that describes the qualities, beliefs and principles that we ascribe to ourselves and a word that describes the values that we inherit from the people around us and the world that we live in. In simple terms, our identity is who we are – or is it?
What most branches of sociology and psychology can agree on is that many aspects of our identity are inherited and learned and that as we age, our identity becomes more influenced by our external world as well as more rigid. Humanistic psychology (the one that believes we are all ultimately striving to fulfil our potential) suggests that with each interaction with the world and the people that live in it, our identity becomes decreasingly aligned with who we authentically are.
A common example that illustrates this point is one that we’re all familiar with. It’s the story of the man (or woman) who has spent his whole life climbing the career ladder, often at the expense of his family, his happiness and his health. From every rung of the ladder, the one above him taunts him “you can’t identify as successful until you’re up here”, it says. He keeps climbing, desperate to escape the identity that pursues him from beneath; “the failure”. As this man ages, his identity becomes largely informed by the opinions and evaluations of his professional peers and leaders and the qualities that they assign to him become so rigid that they’re almost impossible to shift. So what happens when the ladder reaches the ceiling? When retirement arrives and there are no peers left to offer that validation? Our Mr S (for success) stands in his suit on the roof of his career; a product of a lifetime of hard work and professional growth; and asks aloud “who am I now?”.Sometimes we see men (or women!) like this on the television; except that these men are slightly different. Sometimes, they’re in their thirties or forties and have their family in tow, but more often they’re in their fifties
Words by Darcie Cripps-Talbot
and sixties. These are the men that have gone against the grain, ‘escaped the hamster wheel’ if you’ll pardon the cliché. They’ve reached the ceiling of their career (or taken a leap of faith half way up the ladder) and had a whiff of who they could be if they shunned the identity that they’ve been ascribed, taking a risk on finding out who they are for themselves. They wave down at the camera crew from the window of their Amazonian tree house, pointing proudly at the broken picture on the TV they’ve hooked up to a wire coat hanger on the roof, while another one tells the interviewer about the aliens he’s seen from the caravan he lives in beside Stone Henge; cut to Mr S number three – he’s converted a bothy on Orkney into a workshop and tries to smile for the camera in 100mph wind as sheep pass him horizontally in the background.
Admittedly, these caricatures may be my way adding humour to a phenomenon that I actually find deeply saddening. A world in which the act of choosing a path that satisfies and fulfils the self and choosing to identify as you and you alone is so shocking and rare that whole television programmes are made about it. At best, these characters are sold to us as aspirational, at worst, ridiculous – but the question I’m left asking is, why aren’t they the norm?
Okay, we’re all adults here, so let me pause to acknowledge that financial limitations, familial responsibility and health restrictions are a few of many reasons why we can’t all pack a bag and run away when we hear our calling. Even with this taken into account though, as I stand in a book shop one rainy Saturday afternoon surrounded by instruction books on “how to be happy” and observe that all of the people standing or perching on the window ledges sampling such titles are in their fifties or older, I can’t help but wonder whether the demand for such a book being so high isn’t indicative of a generation of people looking in the wrong place to find it.
Over the coming months, the idea of identity and how it can shift as we move through the stages of life is going to be explored – from finding purpose after retirement to seeking the illusive state of happiness; from finding a place in the local community to surviving a world on pause due to a global pandemic – we’re going to leave no stone unturned.
In next month’s issue, we’re going to start where we left off today; in the company of our radical retiree living his best life in his caravan at Stone Henge – and ask the question “Who am I now? How do I hear my calling amongst all of this noise?”.