You find yourself staring down a long hallway with people lined up in front and behind you, single-file. Some look the same as you, others look different. Slowly, you begin to pick apart the similarities and differences between the nameless strangers in your line.
Tall, short, big, skinny, light-skinned, dark-skinned, long-haired, short-haired, balding, bald... You notice that some differences are subtle, while others are complex. And as you scan the line over and over again, you soon find yourself at the front, face-to-face with an average looking man sitting at a plain desk, barely looking up from his typewriter to acknowledge your presence. A single question.
"Who are you?"
What do you answer? You start by telling him your profession. A dancer, a doctor, a chef. Then, you go into your family. You are a brother or sister, a son or daughter, a father or mother. The man stops typing. Taken aback, you start looking for other answers. You mention your ethnicity, your physical features, as if you are reciting your passport. He sighs.
"Not what you are, who you are."
Again, you fight for answers. You start mentioning your ideals. You're a Democrat or Republican, you find social justice appealing. You are a warrior for abolishing sex trafficking and consistently speak out for refugees. Then you start mentioning your passions. Better education is the key to a better future, so you aspire to teach in any way that you can. You love learning, so you keep yourself a student by taking online courses. You're an artist -- you love creating with everything around you. Perhaps you bring up your beliefs. You're a Christian, a Buddhist, Atheistic, Agnostic, or you simply reject the idea of religion altogether.
The man types everything down, but sighs while doing so. You start to feel as if you've missed the entire point of the question as he dejectedly tells you to keep moving. Hesitantly, you shift past him and find yourself once more in line, waiting your turn.
"Who are you?"
I find this a supremely difficult question to answer. Barring the typical icebreaker questions of what your name is, where you're from, and what your favorite color is, I've often dreaded this more than anything. How, in the span of a sentence or two, are you supposed to describe yourself? What kind of identifiers will you use? Are you your physical or mental attributes and accomplishments, your beliefs, your ideals? Or maybe you find your identity in your job, your family, your achievements.
I've had the luxury of having never really been forced to answer this question with any sort of lasting consequences. For me, the common understandings of identity seem to pervade my psyche and I find it trivial to answer such a question with anything resembling certainty. At any given time, I can answer that question in a variety of ways and I would still, to me, be answering with complete honesty. I could say I'm an engineer, a freelance graphic artist, or a typographer. I could also, perhaps with less grace, switch gears and start talking about traits, both physical and mental. But the thing is, I don't think any of those descriptors, even put together, really give the question, "Who are you?" a satisfying answer.
You could be the same way. Given the same prompt, you might be inclined to answer with your profession, your political views, your involvement in organizations, etc. You could really even answer with abstract ideas and really no one would bat an eye. You're a wanderlust, a creator, a social justice warrior, an entrepreneur, a dreamer, or an explorer of life. Honestly, the only thing that would be weird is if you combined all of those into a single answer.
We take a lot of these ideas and descriptions, and create an image of ourselves, FOR ourselves. Which, to me, is pretty weird. All these things are but temporary ways to define ourselves and those around us. Sooner or later, these things will pass and we will be left to discover ourselves once more. We let these methods of identifying ourselves dictate our actions and reactions until we're simply walking ideas, devoid of unique perspectives and thoughts.
While that may sound extreme, I'm not ready to deny that it happens, at least partially. Too many times have I found people saying things like, "Oh, I'm an 'I', so I wouldn't like that," while referring to the Myer-Briggs personality type test. My initial reaction is, if you're introverted, just say you're introverted. You're not a test result, and a test result doesn't dictate your decisions. Believe it or not, you're allowed to be introverted, but also like going to social gatherings. It's a possibility! /endrant
But bringing it back down a notch, I think I've come to an understanding that my admittedly low level of knowledge of "identity" has given me the unique opportunity of being nothing and everything all at once. To any given person, I can be whatever I choose to mention at that time. To some people, I'm an engineer. To others, I am an artist. Still others probably think I'm some kind of bum. I can be seen as nice to some people, and others would see me as the epitome of all jerkery and douchetitude, and none of them would be wrong.
I guess what I mean to say is that, above all else, I am a nobody and a somebody. To put the cherry on the top of the metaphorical cliché sundae, I am just me. What I realized is that ideas and identifiers in the commonly understood sense of the word come and go. Today, I can say that I am an engineer and let that be the image I exude. I could be fired tomorrow, and then what? Do I cease to exist? No, not really.
At the end of the day, I think identity can be found in the truest sense of self. You are you, and everything else just kind of tacks itself on to that core. I guess the question is, when everything is stripped away, if all is lost, what's left standing?
...But if anyone asks you who you are, maybe it's best to give them an actual answer.