Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rushing into Identity

Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn't rush into it.
--David Quammen

I've recently been struggling with the idea of identity, which is hardly a new idea. Historically speaking, literature has been dealing with the changeability of identity for hundreds and hundreds of years, even in Ovid's Metamorphoses, which was completed in 8 A.D--roughly two thousand years ago. This theme has stretched from ancient Rome to Elizabethan England (Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, anyone?) to today (Spiderman?).

My problem, however, is that identity in America today tends to revolve around what one does for a living. The first time you meet someone, they ask, "So, what do you do?" They don't ask you who you are or what your hobbies are, what your favorite book is or who your heroes are. They ask you where you work, what your position is, what you do.

(Actually, that's not quite true. I once had a guy I met at a party ask me to tell him about myself. After I went through the whole spiel of normal small-talk topics, he replied, "But who are you?" I wasn't quite sure how to answer his question and floundered for a moment, and each answer I provided was apparently less than satisfactory as he kept repeating, "But who are you? You aren't telling me anything about you." He had pale, pale eyes and didn't blink very often, and this ice-blue stare, combined with his strange nice-to-meet-you conversation, resulted in a very unsettling several minutesthat ended with my subsequent escape to the bathroom. If you think about it, he was correct--I was telling him facts about myself, but I wasn't necessarily telling truths--but then again, I don't normally start discussing truths unless I've had a couple of drinks and am with friends, so his interrogation could be considered inappropriate.)

Of course, few people take this route and focus instead on what your job is. Think about this: I went to a school with the motto, "Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are. They just want to see what you do." On the one hand, this is incredibly comforting--at a public university whose greatest rival is USC, the uber-rich, uber-snotty private school, it is nice to know that you will not be judged on your economic background or your personality, . You will not hear the phrase, "Anybody who's anybody" at a place that promises not to keep tabs on "who" anybody is. The problem arises, then, when you have a job that you feel doesn't accurately portrays who you are or what your abilities are.

I feel fairly certain this is virtually an epidemic in America today as more and more colleges spit out more and more graduates... and more and more jobs are outsourced. There are many examples of this in popular culture, as well--intelligent, well-educated characters who have jobs that are less than fulfilling or challenging. My personal favorite example is Wonderfalls, in which the main character Jaye earned her philosophy degree from Brown and is described as "over-educated and unemployable." She is witty and intelligent--and she works in retail and lives in a trailer park, a direct contrast from the rest of her over-achieving family. Throughout the single season that was produced, Jaye struggles to come to terms with both her profession and her life style in a world that sees the value in neither.

I suppose we're all suffering from Benjamin Braddock syndrome--we're perfectly capable of achieving great things, but we have either a lack of motivation or lack of opportunities. My favorite moment from The Graduate takes place on Ben's birthday, when his parents buy him scuba diving equipment and force him to show it off to their friends in their pool in the backyard. It's the perfect metaphor; we are given an education by our parents and then expected to perform, and when we surface from the swimming pool for air, they push us back down underwater to show off their gifts.
Is this expectation of high achievements fair or justified, however? According to the U.S Bureau of Census, the US population is at around three-hundred-and-four million people. [1] Can we all achieve great things? And just what is "great"? Is it enough to just break even and stay out of debt as the number of foreclosures rises and Americans' debt piles higher? Or do we need to cure cancer to be considered truly successful? Will we be happy once we realize these expectations are unrealistic?

I'm starting to believe that it is this never-ending pile of expectations that accounts for the popularity of the "alter ego" in literature, comics, and cinema today. Look at some of the top films for this year--The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Iron Man. They feature people who seem ordinary in their everyday lives but manage to perform extraordinary tasks, ultimately saving the world. Who doesn't have the fantasy that we're more than our family, friends, and coworkers see? ("You know the world can see us / In a way that's different from who we are.")
In fact, I stumbled across a first-rate example of this last week. My company employs Wackenhut guards for security in our down-town Denver office, and many of them fit the post-military stereotype that probably just appeared in your mind. Last week, however, I met a guard who informed me that he was an "artist." I, of course, took this with a grain of salt and asked what medium he worked in. He immediately launched into a monologue on how he was studying under a Russian master sculptor, Valentin Okorokov (, and worked in both marble and bronzes. I was blown away--who would have thought that a security guard would have that kind of talent? It just goes to show that what you do to pay the bills has little-to-nothing to do with who you are as a person.

I guess my point is, if you're struggling with this, you should try watching Wonderfalls. It does wonders (pun intended) for me, despite my current resistance to the television phenomenon. You can find it on DVD--it was created by the same producers who are currently making Pushing Daisies, which has won numerous Emmys. I guess if you insist on reading instead, you could try The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. (

Work Cited:


Chatty Cathy said...

Awesome essay, just what I needed to read to help with how I am feeling at the moment. I love the quote you used towards the end of your piece. I will give you another quote, from the same source, that you may be able to use - I do hope that one day " [we] get to a place/ To be all that we can be"(HSM).

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I had a feeling you would like that. And everyone I meet who's graduated recently seems to be having this feeling of disappointment with post-college life.

Anonymous said...

Like the pictures, but what happened to your identity picture? Have you become a disnified cartoon character? Or is that you in the vampy mobile home? Looks like you.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Thanks for the comment, I chose my profile picture with you in mind. And, yes, that's me in the vampy mobile home, my dream house.

Anonymous said...

I really hate to rain on your parade, but I would hardly consider Dr. Bruce Banner(the incredible hulks human form, who turned into the hulk after an involuntary exposure to radiation from the gamma bomb he invented), Bruce Wayne(the billionare ninja prince of Gotham), or Tony Stark (the now-grown-child genius and weapons designer) people who seem ordinary in their everyday lives.


Lindsay-with-an-A said...

So what you're essentially telling me is that I'm destined for a life of never-ending mediocrity.

I knew it!

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