Who am I?
That’s a question to which I struggle to find an answer that satisfies me. Oh, there are no shortage of answers: I’m Ben, I’m a husband, I’m a 40 year old, I’m a programmer, I’m an Aspie… But these are only labels. Some can conjure stereotypes: in the case of programmer that might well be of a pale-skinned, glasses-wearing, high-IQ social misfit with poor personal hygiene, no girl/boyfriend, the muscle tone of a blancmange and a diet of pizza, soda and Twinkies. As with most stereotypes there are elements that broadly fit and others that are way off. The imprecision nags at me like a label in the back of a shirt.
Tell me about yourself.
I won’t deny that I do describe myself as above — the labels, not the stereotype! But with limited time, space, or both, I can’t keep on supplying descriptive tags until I feel I’ve completed the picture. Where does that leave me? Well, people have to fill in the gaps from their own observations and that depends on how I appear to them.
I can tell you that I care very much for my wife but that obviously didn’t show to a group of doctors recently who were urgently treating her for an allergic reaction that caused her tongue and throat to swell. I think they were expecting me to appear agitated and fuss over her but I remained calm — fussing or panicking would not have helped either of us, so I sat there out of the way and let the doctors get on with treating her. That’s what I judged to be the most helpful course of action, and because I care I wanted to act in the way that I thought would benefit her the most. They asked my wife whether I cared about her because I appeared cold and unemotional.
But you don’t look <adjective>.
Some people set great store by their belief in their powers of observation: seeing is believing. And when they’re told something that is at odds with what their own eyes have seen they are inclined to disbelieve it. In this case of the doctors — maxilla-facial surgeons and registrars — even with a passing knowledge of autistic behavior they didn’t believe my wife when she told them I do care about her but I’m not expressive: I didn’t look like I cared. You just can’t win sometimes.
It quacks like a duck, therefore…
If I tell you that I’m 5’11” and 210 lbs, stockily built, physically strong and bearded you will have a particular image of me. You might expect certain traits that correspond to that image: stereotypical masculine traits such as:
You’d be in for a surprise: I’m none of those. So I present as male which matches my biological sex but I don’t necessarily think or behave in the corresponding way. Told you I was weird! 😉
It’s a platypus?
Conan-Doyle wrote in Sherlock Holmes “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. And the truth here will have to wait until I have eliminated the impossible. You see, I can’t accurately answer the question with which I opened this essay. I don’t know how to describe who I really am: I’m as reliant on labels as everybody else. To myself I am just me — I know what that means but the collection of thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical matter doesn’t have a name. Any words I or others use are an approximation, a simple sketch of the reality.
René Magritte in his famous painting La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images) captured this perfectly. As the caption on the picture states, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe”. The realization for me of the literal truth of that statement was profound.
I hope I’ve not left you disappointed that I didn’t answer my own question. Instead I wanted to explore what identity means and how my perspective cannot be translated to anybody else without losing fidelity. All anybody else will ever see is an imperfect reflection through my words and their eyes.