Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How we define and identify ourselves...

How do we define ourselves?

I've been thinking about identity a lot recently. Who we are and how we define ourselves. It's complex and I'm sure that I don't have answers to my own questions but I'll ramble for a while and perhaps quantify my thoughts.

I ride a motorcycle. To be specific: I drive a motorcycle/sidecar combination. Because of this I tend to think of myself as a "Rider" whereas others in the motorcycling community say i'm a "Driver" or "Pilot". This little conundrum sort of points the direction of this essay.

When we are first conceived we are not alone. We are a part of another living entity (mother) and are intimately connected to another consciousness. Emotions are conveyed by chemical changes in the body. Consequently, whatever the mother feels, the baby also feels through those same chemical changes. Once we are born we begin the search for our own identity, bereft of those chemical clues. Nothing we will ever experience thereafter will affect us in the same intimate, direct manner although we will continue to have those clues within ourselves.

The search for belonging is an imperative that most sentient beings feel in some manner, whether it's a mating instinct, a herd instinct or a need for companionship. This is so prevalent in humans that those who do not feel this need are often considered by others as dysfunctional in some manner. Loner, hermit, outsider and other terms are used to describe those who do not have or suppress the pairing or herd instinct.

As a result we tend to create identity "overlays" by casting our identity with others who share similar pastimes, hobbies, characteristics or outward appearances. Sometimes we even further categorize ourselves by choosing a sub-set of an identity group by sub-consciously or consciously re-defining a general group to better place ourselves within a smaller, more well defined group. While this might help internally with our search for identity it often spreads further confusion externally.

Although I consider myself as a "rider", to others I'm a "Biker" and to yet others I might also be a "motorcyclist" or even "Scum". It depends upon the viewpoint of the observer. Even among those who ride there's often a lively discussion concerning identity terms. Some say "Rider" applies to those who ride behind the driver of a motorcycle. Some say it applies to the person driving and the second person is a passenger or they use the slang term "bitch" to denote the difference between rider and passenger. The term "Biker" is often said to apply only to those who favor the outlaw image and live a lifestyle that is intimately interconnected to their motorcycles and club members. This image is often thought to be totally separated from "Riders" who do not ride specific brands or types of motorcycles, are not totally dedicated to a "outlaw" club or organization and do not show allegiance to same by wearing distinctive patches or clothing.

This is where the issue gets cloudy, so to speak. "Bikers" wear leather but so do riders and the oft reviled "Poseurs". Poseurs are those who ride similar bikes, wear leather, decorate their clothing with patches that do not denote belonging to a club and only tend to ride in nice weather or on weekends. Those types are thought to cluster at bars slightly more upscale than do "Bikers", often wear similar leathers sans dirt and scuffs or other visible use and have no affiliations other than proximity to other groups. "Poseurs" or "Posers" are those who mimic the appurtenances and apparel without the more deeply seated commitment to motorcycling that others have. Consequently, posers slip into and out of their assumed identity as easily as changing clothes.

It's all part of our search for identity. That feeling of belonging that was taken from us when we were first pushed from our mother's womb.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote, in his Meditations XVII;

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

These poignant words serve as a reminder that we are surrounded by a global identity, one which surpasses the mundane or petty. It says to us that we are a part of all other human identities and inextricable therefrom. This excerpt has survived through the intervening hundreds of years as one man's reminder and plea that we not forget this single global identity. Today, in the midst of war and global uncertainty. these words address, as they did hundreds of years ago, man's search for belonging.

It's a hope against futility in a time when once again mankind has turned to slaughtering each other as an attempt to homogenize our existence by seeing to it that all the survivors are from a single identity group. It's a rather major stumbling point because, apparently, not everyone agrees which select group this single entity might be.

So, might that be the answer to our search? That we are "everyman" rather than being separate from the "jerk" that lives next door, attends different religious services, wears different clothing, has tattoos and a nose ring or some other disqualifying characteristic? It's certainly one answer but I don't think that most will accept it as "their" answer.

There's a type of mental condition called Anhedonia which is the inability to experience joy from activities or emotions. There is a condition with no medical name but which is called Acedia by Robertson Davies and which is much more pervasive. Both are considered to be core elements of depression and possibly schizophrenia. I mention this because I fit the description of both. A side effect is that behavior changes wherein, although this fits the description of the deadly sin, Sloth, it is not actually sloth. The difference is that Acedia is pervasive and seemingly can't be changed or cured through psycho-therapy or medication. It's permanent. Here's what Richard O'Conner, Phd, has to say about both:


"Anhedonia is the technical term for the inability to experience joy. When people are in the depths of depression, nothing touches them, not the most intensely pleasurable activities, not the most familiar comforts. They are emotionally frozen. In this state, people either have to get professional help or simply wait for weeks or months until the depression lifts by itself; nothing is going to make them feel better.

Less dramatic than anhedonia but a much more pervasive problem is a condition that doesn't even have a clinical name; it's the gradual withdrawal into isolation and indifference that can mark the beginning of depression. Robertson Davies called this condition acedia; it's akin to the deadly sin of sloth. But it's not merely laziness, it's a gradual closing down of the world. As depression makes us lose interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, our range of activities constricts. We stop taking chances, we avoid stimulation, we play it safe, and we begin to cut ourselves off from anything that might shake us up — including loved ones. It's the gradual poison that sinks into marriages and makes people vulnerable to affairs. It's the hardening of the attitudes on the job that makes for petty, passive-aggressive bureaucracies. It's the withdrawal from our own children that leaves them questioning why we bother to live.

I worry that the symptomatic relief of depression provided by medication or brief therapy only helps a person regain a previous level of functioning that was depressed to begin with. Acedia, the absence of feeling, makes for empty lives, and it seems to be on the increase. Putting anger, guilt, and shame in their place is not enough for recovery from depression; we also must take responsibility for learning to feel good. We might prefer to play it safe, to avoid or control all emotions, but we simply can't; it doesn't work; our selves and our relationships deteriorate into brittle, bitter, vulnerable shells. While learning to feel may be temporarily upsetting, in the long haul it adds richness and meaning to our lives."


Although this sounds rather unpleasant it isn't and although those who suffer from these conditions may be aware of them, as am I, it's often become a way of life for those who have them. Often we just don't notice or care. There are no spikes in our lives to point up the highs and lows of daily living. As mentioned in the above quote, we are emotionally frozen. There are minor differences between sufferers, if indeed that's even an applicable word. I'm not bitter or "brittle" and although I have some regrets, as do we all, they do not turn to hatred or dissolve into anger.

Such things just do not rise to importance in my life. From another viewpoint, I tend to be unaffected emotionally by most things and turn to logic and reason rather than emotions for resolving questions and situations. This gives me time to consider identity, among other philosophical issues.

I do not identify myself as a "Rider" or "Biker" or "Poseur". I am me. I wear appropriate gear for riding safety rather than mimicking others for image. I'm a member of several associations which do not require club membership meetings and I'm actually a member of the local chapter of STAR, Star Riding and Touring, but I seldom join their rides unless they intrigue me or boredom threatens to become depression. I'm immune, for a specific definition of that word. I laugh and smile and am friendly but after the immediate response is no longer needed I turn it off just as I turn it on, like a light switch. For those with "normal" lives and responses this is almost unfathomable. How can it be? I no longer worry about it. It just is.

For me, the search for identity has resolved itself, after its own fashion, and allowed me the indulgence of curiosity regarding it. I tend to see more and realize more about others than do most. Highs and lows of emotions like anger, love and anxiety are all the same. They closely parallel a flat line. Curiosity remains active however.

I seek to understand others' need for identity past being the unique self that they have created and the desire to pair or align that self with an outside entity. My lack of attitude is often interpolated as being aloof. I am not. I am accessible but not predictably so even through long association.

I ride a motorcycle but it's something I do rather than something I am. I have no identity as a "Rider, "Biker" or "Poseur". I'm always me. I'll never be "everyman" because my condition mostly precludes that. I'm accustomed to that. By default I know no of other way to be.

There are many things I've done over the past half century and longer and many activities I've participated in that involved group participation but I remained myself when it came time to profess identity. This remains workable for me although I'm sure that the prospect of such an existence would horrify others.

How about you? How do you define yourself?

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