Defining Identity: Your True Self Yearns to Be Free
The founder of a Chinese tech company, a retired Christian congressman, a world-class jiu-jitsu practitioner, a Libertarian clergyman, an Irish-American parolee, a Syrian national, an underground hip-hop artist, and a homeless veteran are the fortunate survivors of a plane crash who are now familiarizing themselves with this tiny, uninhabited island in the Pacific.
With no possessions other than the clothes on their backs, their character and willingness to survive are being put to the test.
Hypothetical scenarios like this intrigue me. A group of people from various backgrounds must do without the strengths they’re accustomed to having in the real world in order to survive in a foreign environment.
We’ll come back to the island in 4 months to find out who survived. But first, we’ll discuss identities.
Who am I and how do I define myself?
Whenever I ask myself these questions I always seem to have a bit of difficulty answering at first—mainly because my tendency is to either list a bunch of accomplishments I’m proud of or to think of any profound life-changing experiences that might’ve brought me to where I am now. I’ll even consider things that I have no control over such as the ethnic and familial background. But in the end, these are all still external things. Do they really define who I am?
The difficulty in defining identity is that human beings are very complex. We do a lot of things. We’re associated with different entities. We subscribe to different ideas. And whether it be through the deliberate pursuit of a goal or just blind happenstance that’s outside of our control, we somehow manage to find identity in these external “layers.” I’ll explain.
There are several spheres that individuals most commonly use to identify themselves by: nationality, culture and subculture, ethnicity, religion or worldview, political party, social class, occupation, and even choice of recreation or leisure.
I am Mexican. I’m a Republican. I’m a Christian. I’m an addict. I’m Jewish. I’m a college graduate. I’m a convicted felon. I’m a professional rugby player.
I am of the most humble opinion, that these things only add to our identity—they color and detail it. But the true, core identity is still underneath all of that.
Some of these identity “layers” are donned as a natural consequence of us progressing through our course of life. We achieve our professional goals, we acquire more education, we associate with certain groups of people. These layers certainly become viscerally attached to us as they have a direct effect on our thought processes, opportunities, and courses of action.
But if we were to strip ourselves of all these layers, what would we find underneath?
The dictionary defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” In other words, it’s being who you truly are.
It’s very foundational and core-centered, and quite simple in my opinion. It’s you at your core. Naked, raw, you.
I think that most people, certainly myself included, have had difficulty in being truly honest in assessing the deepest, darkest, most raw part of oneself. It’s difficult because this is where everything resides, all the good and all the ugly. It’s all here.
We often resort to attempting to hide the unfavorable, insecure, and unattractive parts of our core selves, underneath layers which we find to be more acceptable. And while it may work in practice, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re not being completely honest with ourselves.
The fact that my educational accolades allowed me to join the military as a commanding officer doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have half the grit to survive the physical training that the enlisted soldiers go through and I’m also deathly terrified of going to war.
My birthright as a member of this wealthy, Northeastern-American family may provide opulence in ways that most can only dream of, but it surely doesn’t hide the bitterness I have toward my older cousins who are far more successful than I am.
I think there’s true value — as precious as gold — in having an honest, raw, unfeigned, and wide-eyed view of what our true identity is. This means being honest with both your strengths and weaknesses. Who am I without all the external layers? What do I have to offer the world as a raw, naked person? Stare your fears and insecurities directly in the face until you know them like the back of your hand. Recognize but don’t overemphasize your strengths.
And when you finally become uncomfortably comfortable with who you REALLY are, build this person up. This is who you invest in. This is the core, this is the center, this is what all the other layers rest upon. Refine your strengths. Be fully aware of all your fears and insecurities and be willing to work through them. But don’t try to cover anything with false identities any longer.
When your core is strong, all the other layers you apply along the way will only be fruitful, as everything else you do will be supported by strong roots.
The analogy of physical exercise in this situation is so fitting. Working out your core is arguably the most important workout you can do. A weak core will result in a weak form, ultimately affecting any other workout for the other body parts. But a strong core will support it all, allowing the arms to assume the perfect form and reach a maximum range of motion. With a strong core, the lower back can remain aligned while doing heavy squats or deadlifts.
Back to survivor island. It’s been 4 months and sadly, only half of the party survived.
So, who are the survivors? Was it the congressman? The tech-founder? Did the clergyman survive?
The truth is that none of the people I mentioned at the beginning of the story had survived. The four survivors are Marcus, Thiago, Rick, and Fatima.
Marcus survived because he has an iron will and an innate ability to think well under pressure. And on this island, he’s not a homeless veteran. He’s a badass who isn’t afraid to climb 40-foot coconut trees for food.
Thiago is not a jiu-jitsu practitioner on this island, but a master of the daily grind. He had the willingness to grind through the daily requirements of building and maintaining shelter without grievance of pain or weariness.
Rick, survived by overcoming his fear of the unknown and trekking through the vast jungle in search of live game and a clean water source. On this island, he is not a convicted felon, but a hunter with a purpose.
And Fatima, having survived the war in her home country, having life both given and taken from her, is unshaken by the threat of death. She survives by calmly reminding fear to bow in her presence and speak up when spoken to. She survives by radiating a flame of hope regardless of how dire the circumstance. She survives by truly knowing her identity and knowing the effect it has on the world around her.