Thursday, April 22, 2010

The devil is in the details - another round with identity

I've written before about identity, how we define ourselves in a multitude of ways and how those definitions change in different contexts. Lately I've been thinking about how self-definition can be shaped by the small details. This is especially true when we create general definitions of someone else (make assumptions) or when we focus in on one facet of ourselves to the exclusion of all others. This is both useful and dangerous.

For example, I was walking on the beach recently and met a woman who was very carefully picking up only one kind of shell out of the many available to her. Further down the beach I met a couple picking up a different kind of shell. Now I think of the woman as, "The lady from Michigan who likes the pointy shells," and the couple as, "The people with tattoos who like the translucent shells." They told me their names but I don't remember them. Were we to meet again it would be the detail of the kinds of shells they like that I'd remember. It's a handy memory trigger and, were I ever to encounter them again and tell them about it, they might tell me that I'm the woman from Boston who liked the shells with barnacles. True, I am, though I am also much more than someone from Boston who likes shells with barnacles, just as they are more than a woman from Michigan who likes pointy shells and a couple with tattoos who like translucent shells. We all have far more facets to our personalities. This generalization, as such, isn't particularly harmful to either of us.

Where this becomes more dangerous is when we make generalizations about someone and then don't let them outside of those boundaries - they are a nationality, a religion, a gender, a kind of shell. I'm sure you can think of many examples when this has born terrible results. We can also internalize those limitations and be bound by them. I'm a woman so I can't be athletic. I'm white so I can't understand oppression. You get the idea.

Another internal risk of definition by detail is when we take one detail of who we are and make our whole. It's where obsession and limitation can be born. Some of these obsessions can lead to amazing things. If someone believes that they are only a scientist or artist or writer then the world may be richer for it, but if they never achieve success in their chosen field, while the world won't know, their life may be full of the pain of perceived failure.

I know people like this. They wanted to be an artist, for example, but set such a high standard for themselves that anything else seems like failure. They couldn't see the other facets of their life - family, friends, career, connection - as a success, so have accepted the definition of failed artist as their only definition. With each subsequent setback in their life, whether associated with their career, their health or some other setback no different from that which any of us will experience, they retreat further into the definition of failure. By embracing only one aspect of their identity - artist (or whatever label you may have embraced), they have forced themselves into a small and airless box that allows for little hope of change. Had they been willing to pick a broader set of details with which to define their life then they might not now feel so trapped by their circumstances. It's heartbreaking to watch but not something anyone can convince them to change. Other examples of detail-driven identity that can function as trap include fear of success or failure and fear of choosing an identity at all.

Of course, we all engage in all of these detail-oriented behaviors to some degree. We all make assumptions about others, internalize external assumptions and create minute roles for ourselves. It's what we do with these devilish little details that matters. If we embrace them knowingly and with a positive cast then we can at least strive to use them for positive change ("I will be the best artist I can be, even if no one else knows") rather than turn them into our own gilded cages.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Have I mentioned recently that I love you? :-)


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