We all go through life acquiring labels: abstract, shorthand descriptions of how others see us. Some are positive: intelligent, caring; while others are negative: weird, rude, crazy. I’ve picked up several over the years. But how do these labels relate to my self-image, my identity?
The short answer is that they don’t. I see myself as an individual, unique, with a set of behaviors and thoughts that is mine and mine alone. Yes, I share certain traits with others to varying degrees and this induces people to file me under certain categories in their minds. To put me into particular boxes bearing little hand-written labels, identifying me as a set of characteristics.
When I think of these labels I picture a dark, dusty, wooden cabinet, perhaps in a Victorian museum, with row after row of small drawers. Each has a tarnished brass handle and above the handle is affixed a small, age-yellowed paper label with one or two words written in a neat copperplate hand; the black ink has faded to gray. Inside each drawer, in perfect alphabetical order, is a stack of plain cards and upon each is written a person’s name in the same hand as the drawer’s label.
This view of a person as a collection of basic, orthogonal characteristics has its uses. It provides a point of reference, a sketched outline upon which to build a more detailed representation. But the picture must not be confused with the subject it represents – a portrait of somebody, whether painted or written, cannot describe them fully. The picture is not the object. That is the message in René Magritte’s La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) with its caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).
As in mathematics, membership of any number of sets does not predicate that those attributes are the sum total of being, of identity. It’s just like saying that a particular number is prime and odd, and attempting to infer its other attributes from that incomplete description. Can you guess what number I was thinking of? The number of possible answers is literally infinite.
When I consider myself reduced to a meager collection of adjectives my hackles rise and it brings to mind the rebellious outburst of Number 6 in The Prisoner, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” By simplifying me, painting me with a palette restricted to primary colors, you deny my complexity and individuality. To understand a person in any depth it is necessary to consider the subtleties, the fine nuances of their character. To be aware of those aspects that set them apart from others who appear superficially similar. To understand that your labels are no more than a frame that limns the gross outline within which lies the colorful richness of detail.
I reflect upon my own identity and I can recognize traits, but they are not me – they do not define me. They are the bold strokes from a broad brush upon the canvas – no fine detail is possible. I am a complex system emerging from the unique combination of more factors than I can name, each contributing to the whole and generating new additional behaviors through their interactions. In this whole world of some six billion people there is not one other who is the same as me. I am me, no more and no less. My being is my identity in toto.