Human: An Identity of One

“The stone wanted to inform me that our substance was common” – Italo Calvino

Why don’t we more regularly rely on “human” to describe our everyday identity?

We use national identity, ethnic identity, gender identity, age identity, professional identity, spiritual identity, style identity — the list goes on — to remind ourselves and others of “who we are.” Yet at the real, physical level, we are bags of skin, pieces of meat, walking around with bones carefully arranged and blood quietly flowing inside our bodies to actually generate our existence.

It seems the “human” identity isn’t as enthusiastically embraced, or in a sense ready-to-hand, as every other infinitely imaginable label that seemingly differentiates ourselves from others. We easily (purposely?) forget it during physical or ideological conflict. Why?

Are there not enough distinctive markers — languages, names, images, symbols — to make it an attractive and fulfilling identity to “be”? Is there some sort of human “branding” challenge buried in here to bring people together? Are we experiencing a moment in time in which our common symbolic technology — our language — for an identity of compassion and inclusion is under-represented or possibly underdeveloped?

We use language — a system of symbols — to identify and describe the natural world. Languages aren’t the world, they are man-made descriptions of it. Words are to the world as inches are to a 2x4 of wood. We use them to label, but they don’t actually exist, and their meanings aren’t universal across all societies, either. Words and inches could “disappear,” yet the world would physically remain the same. Symbols like these are so invisible to humans that we don’t usually recognize they are “happening.” Have you ever thought of a symbol “happening” to you? The risk of this magic trick is the framing of reality or creation of mindsets that may not be healthy or peaceful approaches to cope and coexist in the real world.

Identity is a construction of symbols in a way used to differentiate objects in the world. Identity necessarily defines one thing as unlike another: an identity is, in a sense, a difference.

It seems as if a “human identity”— one in which we realize a camaraderie and compassionate unity — may be an odd symbolic catch-22 in that:

1. Identity is difference

2. Difference dislikes or disqualifies unity

We’ve seen this manifest in examples of social conflict as a result of identity—a clear example is racism. Whites see blacks as “Blacks,” therefore different than “Whites,” and therefore disqualified from a compassionate unity or camaraderie. Yet in a dark room, “Whites” and “Blacks” would have the same real existence — arms, legs, eyes, ears, voices, feelings, thoughts. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s aimed to destroy the differences seen in the light—to change peoples’ perception of their world so that “Whites” saw “Blacks” not as “Blacks” but as “humans.” Why is similarity such a difficult lens for a general social mindset to look through?

The Inclusivity/Exclusivity Feature of Identity

An identity is fascinating because while it seemingly has difference, it also has similarity. Two sides, yet one coin; boundaries are held in common. The sensation of both inclusiveness and exclusiveness is a curious feature of identities that create different symbolic mindsets of the world. There it is: love and hate. Two “opposites,” yet one it — the inclusive significance of living.

The allure of sub-identity symbols (every identification smaller than the total “human” group) is their brilliant ability to reinforce our senses of “self” and our “differences” from the rest of the world. You wouldn’t know your “self” unless you knew who was “other.” Your identity — whichever symbol you choose to perceive through — helps your bag-of-skin-homo-sapien-body determine what you perceive you are like and unlike in your environment. In the 2016 American Presidential Election, Donald Trump knew this identity trick well, as designer Forest Young noticed about Trump’s “Make America Great Again” symbol:

“The presidential theater here is a play with a single prop… Not unlike Yorick’s Skull from Hamlet — the prop of death that symbolically eliminated the difference between people — the illusion of an everyman society was expediently rendered by a billionaire wearing a baseball cap.”

But an important hang-up happens with humans when our identities rely on exclusiveness, or limitedness: whatever is limited tends to bring about conflict. Rabindranath Tagore noticed this when he observed the symbols of nations — national identities — and their ability to simulate conflict-based views of the world: “The political civilization which has sprung up from the soil of Europe and is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed, is based upon exclusiveness.” For example, I’m “American,” you’re “Mexican.” So, we’re “different.”

But think about all of the ways that we are similar. At some point, “other” eventually turns out to be “you.” Jiddu Krishnamurti noticed this fundamental unity in being human: “Your consciousness is your faith, your belief, your nationality, your fears, your gods, your British, French, German, Indian.” With a wide enough view, there seems to be little evidence or reason for real division within the complete human population. Even though the plots of our individual lives have some different chapters, we are still contained in the same basic book, as the writer Italo Calvino observed:

“The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest — for example, the meeting of two people, which will become decisive for both — must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of events, environments, other people, and that from the meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story.”

We always have the complete freedom to see others through the lens of difference or of similarity, a choice to widen our relationship to others or run away from it.

How might we see the good of the many?

How might we continue moving from unity of uniformity into unity in diversity?

How might we continue to evolve from me to we?

How might we widen the inclusivity of our everyday sense of identity?

Encountering another person, I find the mind tends to quickly decode all of the ways in which that person is different than “me.” It’s a woman, I’m a man. Light hair, I’ve got dark. Mexican, I’m American. Short, I’m tall. Wears glasses, instead of contacts. Sandals, not boots. Has an accent, I don’t.

What if you flipped your automatic interpretation systems to that of similarity instead of difference?

We both happen to be in the same room at the same time in the same place on the same planet. We both went to elementary school, where we both learned about dinosaurs and Mount Everest and the Pacific Ocean and the moon. We’re both wearing t-shirts. We both love Italian food, and Star Wars, and the color blue. We both speak several languages, including one which we share (every language, from alphabet, to image, to code, is made in the name of increasing unity). We both have arms, legs, eyes, ears, voices, feelings, thoughts. Together, we’re humans.

Practice seeing others through the lens of similarity rather than of difference. See what happens.