Identity: Definition by Association

The question of “who am I” plagues many of us well past our adolescent developmental stages. This is especially so if you are a “P.” (Check out myers-briggs temperment analysis.) A “P” doesn’t like to close the box on anything. They like to keep it open, and are thus revising and revisiting ideas and withholding judgment on them.

I’ve been thinking about metaphor and simile and their relationship to identity formation. An excerpt from Walt Whitman’s poem: There was a child went forth points to this relationship.

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there–and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads–all became part of him.
The natural world around us becomes a means of expressing who we are.

The natural world around us becomes a means of expressing who we are. For example, a child picks up a hard, cold, stone. He feels its strength; it seems unbreakable. He throws the stone, it bounces. The thing seems immutable. Later, during a fight with his older brother or sister, he imagines himself, a stone. He exclaims, “I am a rock! You can’t hurt me!” The rock has become a metaphor to express who he is. At the same time, it expresses who he is not. He is not like the fragile rose petal that so easily tears. His elder sibling yells, “You are a pansy!” The child wonders, “Am I a rock, or a flower?”

As time and new contexts reveal new aspects of nature and self to the child, he realizes that sometimes he is a fragile flower. His parents’ harsh words, spoken in a moment of weakness, tear him apart. “I am weak and fragile!” he decides. But, he also finds that when opposition comes his way, he stands strong in his truth. His task, then, becomes to find beauty and truth in both the rock and the flower.

We use our relationships to objects of nature to define who we are. But, we also use icons from common culture. Are you a Starbucks coffee or a Tim Horton’s coffee? Are you a Nike or an Addidas? Are you a Chekhovian realist or a Borgesian phantasmagorist? Are you an Elizabeth Bennet or an Anna Karenina? (Or a Colette?) Can we analyze who Litlove is by the guests at her ideal dinner party? What can we say of this Blogger by the books she has chosen to identify with? What about Dorothy W and her association with books and bikes, and how does bringing biking and reading into relationship add to or understanding of her?
(I’m new to blogging as a community so forgive me if I’ve broken with convention here, by linking to your blogs.)

We seem to be constantly searching out ways to express ourselves. Why? Is it to be understood by others, or by ourselves, or both? Do the associations form us, or do we form our associations by knowledge of who we are? (The old “chicken or egg” question!)

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5 thoughts on “Identity: Definition by Association

  1. Shuana, it’s lovely to be linked to you in this post, you’ve certainly not broken with any conventions. And you’re quite right; identity is a perennial problem, or perhaps its better to say, an ever changing opportunity. I’ve always loved to read writers who understand the dynamic process involved in living life, and who track the way people change and evolve. I’ve always felt encouraged by the thought that I can reinvent myself, and writing the blog offers me a way to do that in words where I feel most comfortable.

  2. Litlove, your response made me realize that by linking to you and others, I’m attempting to establish my own identity in the blogging world, by associating myself with other litbloggers.

  3. I’m definitely happy to be linked to, and such linking is a way, as you say, of establishing or exploring identity. I love it, because of the conversation it gets going. The questions you raise are fascinating — I like the way you describe identity as more of a process than a fixed thing — the associations we make help us explore who we are, although they don’t ultimately define us.

  4. Thanks for dropping by Dorothy W. I agree that our associations help us to define ourselves; they don’t fix our identity in cement.

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