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Soulful Sundays: Identity Crisis

"Authenticity is less about finding the things that are you and more about forgetting the things that are not." -Anonymous

"This above all: to thy own self be true, and it must follow, as the day the night, thou canst not then be false to any man." -William Shakespeare

Who are you? I want you to think long and hard before you go about answering that one. The simple truth is that there is no simple truth. Everyone is many things, an endless number of overlapping identities that coalesce into a single organism. Perhaps the only consistent thing about our identity is that it involves a mixture of three components: nature, nurture, and free will. When any one (or two) of these three becomes more dominant than the others in the triad, then we are liable to suffer a crisis of identity.

If you haven't been living under a rock for the past few decades, then you are probably aware of the modern battlefield surrounding the term "identity." It appears to be the third rail in multiple realms including politics, the workplace, family, and church. Never before has the ability to switch one's identity been taken more seriously and given more power than it is today. In the past, it was reserved for those who had an epiphany, suffered a great tragedy, or heard the voice of God. Now, it is prosaic.

The free will side of our previous identity equation is currently out of proportion, and it is pathologically affecting the whole. We can see the evidence in the rising rates of body dysmorphia, suicide, depression, eating disorders, and social anxiety in the population at large, but especially in the youth. The moral relativism of postmodern thought has left us without a clear model for the ideal individual (nurture) and has undermined the bedrock of biological constraints (nature). In its wake, we have been left relying on our own misguided notions of identity. We have been left astray.

Online communities and social media have escalated the problem by providing unrealistic expectations around appearance, popularizing sex transitions, and giving all users an anonymous platform to both berate the people who are not like them and also collude with those who espouse to be exactly like them. The only ones who win are those who profit from the extra traffic. Social media monoliths and political parties alike thrive on the chaos created by identity confusion. It has created an echo chamber for ideas that would otherwise be ignored for being either insane or unethical. Instead, they are not only considered, they are validated. They become the fuel for destructive regimes. We must work against identity politics.

As a result of modernization in the US, we have actually become more homogeneous, not less. The people you surround yourself with on a daily basis most likely think similarly to you and have similar values to you. You can avoid almost all conflicts surrounding politics, economics, and philosophy by just joining the right group. If you think you've got everything figured out, then you can find people who are like you and make them your friends. However, you do so at your own peril.

You are the average of your closest friends. If you want a rich and robust identity I would suggest seeking out people who are different from you. Engage with groups and activities that stretch your comfort zone. Learn what kinds of people are involved - what motivates them to do the things that they do? Try to leave politics out of your interactions. See who people are based on their actions. Seek to be defined by your own actions. This is the ultimate test of identity and virtue.

We are both individuals and parts of a greater whole. This paradox is what allows us to be imaginative, yet grounded; free, yet certain; giving, yet receptive. If you are suffering from your own identity crisis, there are two directions you can go. You are either too deeply invested in your own personal identity and need to re-anchor yourself with the world at large. In this case, seek ways to make yourself useful and the lives of others better. Or you feel like you have no identity at all. In this case, seek to find your natural gifts and share them with the world in a positive way. All roads lead to kindness. As the Dalai Lama famously said, "My religion is kindness."

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