SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Identity Politics is a Bad Answer to a Beautiful Problem
Who the hell are we?
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
You wake up and something is different.
The room is unfamiliar, your body feels like a borrowed jacket you can’t remember borrowing, and your thoughts are stuck in the present, interpreting everything with only the information you can gain in this moment.
You’re disconnected from anything that’s ever happened, which renders anything that is happening empty, like listening to a language you don’t speak.
If you think your next step would be to find someone who can give you the background information you lack, you’ve intuitively tried to replace what you’re missing. But what are you missing?
You don’t know where you’ve been and don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re detached from that which grounds you in the world and gives you a direction to move in. You’re detached from yourself.
Who you are isn’t as simple as you seem. Maybe you already know that personal identity is complicated because you’ve spent your entire life developing one. Most of the time, we are who we are and don’t worry much about how we know that we are who we are.
Allow to me kickstart your worries.
Personal identity is a problem as old as Buddhism, which has tried to solve the problem by saying it’s only a problem because we think it is.
Anattā means non-self and conveys the Buddhist belief that, despite our modern fervor for being ourselves, there is no self to be.
The west is, of course, a bit less grand about personal identity than the east. We like to ask annoying philosophical questions like the one I encountered in my research: “What kinds of things are we as persons?” Ask your friends that question in your next smoke session. A more down-to-earth approach to parsing out who the hell we are is the mind-body binary: are we mostly mind or mostly body?
But wait. When thinking about personal identity, there’s a little quirk to questioning it that we overlook in day-to-day identity matters, though it’s core to the concept. Let’s indulge it now:
How can you be certain that who you were yesterday is the same person you are today?
One answer resides in our physical existence. You have the same physical body today as you did yesterday. That’s it, there’s your surefire proof you’re the same person over time. As time passes, the proof that who you were is who you are gets tenuous, though—it gets wrinkled, too.
Our physical bodies might actually prove we aren’t the same person today as we once were. Your body now is different in almost every way from how it was at your birth. If our bodies change drastically, don’t we change too?
The fragility of our physical existence makes the trendier, tribal identities people cling to now seem even less meaningful. “What is a woman?” indeed.
The ever-changing nature of our physical existence is why some people solve the problem of personal identity by pointing to the mind. Forget the body—what really makes us who we are is the part of us that’s thinking about who we are. When you conceive of what makes you the you that you are, you probably think about your beliefs, personality, and your thoughts about yourself.
Your mind is what makes waking up either a nightmarishly confusing moment or a routine you recognize the moment your consciousness flicks back on.
Your body can change all it wants—it can tan, age, and even lose limbs, but nonetheless, you remain the same being inside that body.
The mind isn’t infallible, though.
You can have a mind and still lack a personal identity, as extreme cases of amnesia or dementia show us. If you can have the body and the mind, but still be missing an identity, there’s a third crucial ingredient that makes us who we are.
The reason you woke up in the earlier scenario with no idea what had happened or what will happen wasn’t because you lacked a mind, but because you lacked a particular thing your mind gives you: personal persistence.
When you wake up and have a sense of who you were yesterday and who you are now, you’re experiencing personal continuity. Yay! Enjoy it. Without this connection between your mind and your life, you’d experience the unpleasant scenario described earlier every day. Just like there are a million weird things that can go wrong with an airplane, your brain does a million weird things that make it easy for you to wake up and keep on keeping on.
Personal persistence is why you can work on creating your identity over time instead of starting every morning like a video game played with no memory card.
Identity is all the rage now, but like most popular topics, it’s been squashed into something far less complex than it truly is. With all the fixation on static identities like race and sex, we’re missing how rich and ever-changing identity really is. A permanent, unchanging identity is just one view, but it’s one of the hardest to defend.
There’s nothing that makes it certain who you are today will be who you are tomorrow—and that’s a good thing.
Just as our bodies change throughout time and our minds are constantly integrating the past into our present, who we are is also forever in flux. Every new day adds to the formula that yields your identity. But an infinitely changeable future self might cause the overwhelm that makes some yearn for simple, static identities.
The cost of tying your identity to rigid, unchanging markers is that you can become a rigid, unchanging person.
Instead of defining ourselves by today’s static, invented identities, we’d be better off taking the Buddhist approach and accepting that identity is only a problem because we make it one.
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