Holding multiple identities

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how it looks trying to view the world around you when you forget to put your glasses back on. shae sackman

Trying to hold onto identities is like grasping sand and hoping it won’t slip away, impossible to do but a task we try nonetheless.

What do you do when you are rudely confronted with how another person sees you? How is it that a large part of what makes up our identities ends up being a rough averaging of impressions others have gleaned from our actions and then made some sort of decision on? What if the perception a person has of you is completely wrong? What if you yourself don’t know who you are? 

What if you can’t know who you are?

This very briefly outlines some of the problems with conceiving of ‘identity’ as something that a person has or possesses in some concrete and measurable way. Even when allowing for the fact that identity shifts and changes through time and experience, the concept is still not flexible enough. It remains not quite useful enough. Just a little bit too small. Last year’s unfashionable winter coat with tattered notes to self in the pockets.

If the possibility of identity not having a specific, defined set of possibilities and options is a hard concept for you to dismantle in your mind, consider trying to ‘have’ a river. Or think about how you might go about ‘owning’ or ‘possessing’ light as your very own. Attempting to control or limit these changing, moving substances is like wrapping your fingers around a palm full of sand and increasing your grip. It escapes your grasp. Even if you somehow trap and contain it, the substance cares not for the space it is being forced to occupy.

Identity is kind of like that.

Letting people believe that identity is stable and completely quantifiable, consisting of certain sets of types and kinds that can be neatly explained is a disservice. It serves to falsely limit what we can think of or what we can experience of ourselves and of others. The fake boundaries the concept of ‘an identity’ enforces also work to create a sense of exclusivity. You can be this, but not that. One but not another.

The evidence of this kind of limitation is plain to see in peoples’ attitudes towards trans people, towards disabled people, toward people who experience psychological disorders or who are neurodivergent; to people who do not feel particularly pressured to be one specific way or another; to people who cannot be one thing or another. The tedious work of having to spend time ‘proving’ the people we are to those who can see us or even to ourselves is placed squarely on the one who should be trying to do their best to let the sand just rest in their palm.

I have tried to quantify who or what I am in ways that make sense to others and myself for my entire life, just as everybody else does in their lives. I have put endless time into being the ways that grant me access to the sorts of things I need and tending to those ways of being out of necessity. Along the way, I developed reasons and rationales and stories to tell myself why this false limit is necessary – defended its usefulness, propped it up with the theoretical good I could see that it provided. I have used this limitation against others.

The inspiration for these 1000 words of typed out confusion and frustration come from an experience I had quite a while ago that I am not entirely sure what to do with. It is something that I have pondered every day since it happened. It has bothered and perplexed me so much that I have spoken about it with friends, even when they are entirely baffled as to why it bothers me. The story goes that a thoughtful gesture found its way to me. Time was dedicated to this gesture. Effort was expended. Ideas were considered, words were written, and intention was applied in a measured and specific way.

But this gesture included something so at odds with any sort of identity that I can even conceive of that my receiving the gesture produced a visceral discordant reaction – the physical movement of a mangled note on a violin. To be so ruthlessly and mystifyingly assigned a one-dimensional identity that cannot possibly contain any part of who or what I am remains an experience I am not sure how to hold. If it helps, picture this article as me, cupping this spikey, incongruous sand of this identity in my palm and attempting not to force it into some other shape that makes more sense to me – a shape that suits me better or one that feels more useful.

Lately the loud, jangly twang of a tone this experience has produced within me is finally settling. I have not been able to reconcile it. There is no way to solve this situation, as it is not a problem. There is not a conversation to be had with the person who provided the gesture, and there is not likely a lesson to be learned here. But the sand is relaxing into the cracks and lines in my fingers as I loosely hold it and consider it with a baffled look.

As it turns out, doing away with the attempts at being neater or tidier in who or what you are shows others that they can do the same. It helps to show that knowing who you are might be limiting who you are in some ways. There is a lot more potential when everyone’s hands aren’t crushed around the grains of sand they’ve managed to find for themselves.

You have no right to what someone else thinks of you. But you have no right to any sort of measurable or quantifiable identity, either.  So go out there. Contain multitudes. Fuck around and never really find out. 

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