We see the word identity a lot these days. “Self identity.” “Cultural identity.” “Identity politics.” “I identify as…” It’s part of the human condition to constantly question who we are as individuals, as a society, as creatures who live linearly but exist non-dimensionally.
Any one of us can name a number of roles and characteristics that define us for ourselves and others: male, female, agender, parent, person of color, spoonie, bisexual, candlestick maker, superhero, whatever. Each of us is some amalgamation of descriptors that can only start to sum up the who and what of the stuff between our ears. And as intersectionality becomes a more widely recognized and emphasized facet of politics and personality, our society is coming to realize that each of us is more than our nationality, sexuality, or vocation.
But in spite of that recognition, most of us have one particular piece of identity that encapsulates the core of our being, something about ourselves we elevate and hold sacred. Maybe it’s mother or woman or lawyer or artist. American culture prioritizes the career: when strangers ask us about ourselves, we say things like, “Oh, I’m a web programmer.” It’s not what we do, it’s who we are, even if, facing our maker, that’s not the only standard by which we would wish to be judged or defined.
In part, it’s a social shorthand, a code for our place in society. When I say, “I’m a writer who moonlights as a web marketer,” I’m saying: “I’m a self-identified artistic person who works with technology as a way to supplement my income—oh, and you can likely guess that because I work in a non-essential field with a computer, you can assume that I have at least a few pennies to rub together, I’m educated, and this is probably a path I chose rather than one that was forced on me.”
Whether or not the conclusions you then draw about me based on your own experience and identity are correct is a different issue.
Self-applied taglines like this are useful, of course, but when I do it often, what I choose to publicly emphasize can begin to be reflected in my own internal hierarchy of identity. What should be a core identity, a hub around which my personal constellation of self rotates, instead becomes a gravitational identity, without which none of my secondary identifying articles can be sustained. And if that personal star of self categorization changes or, worse, implodes, I’m left with nothing but a collection of unrelated, rudderless characteristics with no basis and no direction.
Fellow Scribe Brian O’Conor and I have been rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion for our podcast, The Young Podawans, and during this rewatch, I’ve been intensely sympathizing with one of the show’s most unlikeable characters, Asuka Langley Soryu. She’s red-headed, loud, impatient, unkind, competitive, and, above all, reckless. But that’s not why I identify with her. Rather, I see myself in her internal conflict when she begins to lose her central identity.
After a really awful defeat, Asuka’s ability to pilot an Eva begins to fade and, as a result, Asuka begins to wonder what her purpose really is; if she can’t pilot an Eva, why does she even exist?
I may not be a mecha pilot, but I do know what it is to wonder who you are after a perceived failure at something to which your identity is pinned. I think most writers rely on the creative act to give them a place in the universe. It’s a career that requires so much input of self and such dedication over so many years, all other things can begin to seem secondary to its pursuit. And if you aren’t writing, or can’t write, who are you? What’s your point?
That road leads to clinical depression, and that’s why it’s so important to recognize the intersectionality that exists within you, without reference to cultural mores or your place in society. I may be a writer, but I’m also an artisan and a gamer and a geek and an animal lover and a pagan and so many more things that I could fill an encyclopedia simply with ME. My existence does not disintegrate when I take away once fragment of identity, even when it’s one of those core characteristics. Although my entire sense of self may shift to accommodate the new arrangement, I exist even beyond the most random collection of traits by which I may identify. Nothing can take that away.
It’s not always an easy thing to see. But Asuka’s crisis is one that so many of us face, and the heart-wrenching realism of her struggle to reclaim any sense of worth without her former identity is part of what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion such a powerful show. While it’s not, perhaps, the most uplifting demonstration of a battle with depression, it does illustrate that this struggle is one that exists outside the ephemeral web of political climate and social commentary.
The bottom line is this: Identity is not fixed. It’s never too late to question what makes you yourself. And if something changes or breaks, that does not change the central YOU that exists underneath the labels and social cues. Even if that internal sense of self is a work in progress, it’s not something that anyone or anything else can take away.