Growing up I watched “The Cosby Show” and during one episode Cosby sat down with the boyfriend of one of his daughters, meeting for the first time. The young man, when asked what he did for a living, explained that he was “on a journey to find himself.” Cosby, clearly unimpressed, went into the kitchen and when asked by his wife whether he’d met the young man, responded “I don’t know, he hasn’t found himself yet.” While clearly intended for laughs, the situation is not without a degree of poignancy for each one of us at various times in our lives. We all may not puff out our chests in a fit of intellectual pomp like the boyfriend did, but in every clique and group we belong to and are rejected from, in every career path we envision and life goal we decide upon, there is a desire often reeking of desperation. That desire of belonging, of identifying with a larger group, is prodded along by the ever-close feeling that without belonging then life is unable to have meaning.
Americans especially voice an often quite vocal pride in “being their own person,” and undoubtedly there’s a chorus of such declarations being made against the last statement. Before jumping on that bandwagon, I’ll encourage a pause and reflection. When hearing the descriptor “liberal” or “conservative,” is there an immediate emotional reaction? Is the reaction stronger connected to the label that you don’t subscribe to? How about relationships? Is there any kind of strong emotional reaction to “monogamous,” “single,” or “open”? Again, is the reaction stronger when connected to one you don’t identify as? How about the terms “management” and “employee” or “the 1%” and “the 99%”? “Feminist”? Whether identifing with or against, the immediate emotional reactions and the mental images brought up associated with them, indicate that regardless of any desire to not be a person of labels, there is an inevitability of such guiding our thoughts/emotions.
Guidance, however, does not have to write the entirety of our stories. From the sectarian conflicts in the Middle World between Sunni, Shiite and Kurds, to the American social turmoil between gays and straights, and religious identification of being a “true” believer, the result is a false division of reality. Whatever may be said about the social, political and historical roots of all these wars of identification, and there’s plenty of good analysis to be had, the final point is a recognition of an artificial division of reality that is ultimately unhelpful. Labels are inevitable, they provide an easy means of categorization, but to conflate them with a holistic picture of a person is to also inevitably miss the vast array of other personal facets in existence. This is true whether it be of the person being looked at or the person looking back in a mirror.
I work with dozens of people diagnosed with an array of mental pathologies. Determining what category their behavior generally falls under can and often is helpful in providing care, just as it is helpful in social interactions, to a similarly limited degree, in knowing the labels someone else falls under. I’ve found though that in every-day interactions, the relationships formed are better, more fulfilling and beneficial to all involved when the person is looked at as a holistic being. The same holds true in all other social interactions.
Social media is often blasted for encouraging isolation, but truly I think it is far more accurate to say that it provides an easy path for parsing and displaying individual facets of ourselves. The jerk who wrote that nasty comment likely goes home and loves their children, even as the compassionate person may go offline and yell at their spouse. Finding an identity is part of life’s journey, but it is only an identity. Our self-stories need not be burdened by an over-reliance on any single one.
If we actively engage with an ever-widening array of our potential expressions, we have that much more with which to interact and respond to others and changing circumstances. The reverse is also true, as our reactions to others are keyed to the identities or labels they’re placed under, so how we react to others is contingent upon how varied our view of them is. The political opponent is also a spouse, worker, lover, hobbyist, etc. An expansion of perspective helps everyone.
© David Teachout