Identity in my vocabulary is more about selfhood (as in “personal identity”) than similarity. A related definition is the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is; as in, “a distinct Canadian identity”. The singular nature of the word identity is peculiar because it derives from the Latin idem which means the same; as in, “the identity between the city and suburbs”.
Identity (noun) c. 1600, “sameness, oneness, state of being the same,” from French identité (14c.), from Medieval Latin identitatem (nominative identitas) “sameness,” ultimately from Latin idem (neuter) “the same” (see idem).
Why it is that having a personal identity is so important I can only attribute to the fact that, unlike bees in the hive or ants in the nest, we humans are not identical. Among humans the adoption of identity is far from internalized only. It extends outwardly for example to political identity, “the tendency to base one’s politics on a sense of personal identity—as gay, as Jewish, as Black, as female ….. [Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking, “1989]”. Indeed at almost every stage of the evolution of a particular person it is not difficult to define some notable identity. Granted, the definition of that identity may be distorted or discoloured by those imposing the particular identity; but it is never obstructed. It is safely assured that each of us has a yearning to establish, define and preserve our own identity whether for ulterior purposes or merely for self-satisfaction. Sometimes our personal identity matters only to ourselves; at other times it has a bearing upon what others think of us. Sometimes we seek to disguise our identity; at other times, we seek to promote it. Personal identity remains however an internal mechanism to which we are inextricably attached and from which our character derives and our music is heard. Make no mistake the seeds were planted within long ago!
Personal identity is seldom static even if it remains unprovoked by our internal mechanism. To that extent identity is not unlike any other living thing in that it may one day blossom, another day droop; or, merely evolve from active to passive, bright to dull, life to death. Throughout the process however we maintain our allegiance to the determination of our personal identity because we are not unwitting bystanders but instead creatures who derive stimulation from our changing personal identity. We are driven by an innate mandate; one which seeks resolution of dilemma (whatever that may be for each of us). At times the personal identity may define what we feel to be distinct improvement or betterment. In that regard personal identity is always about growth (which once again I remind you is derivative not manufactured).
There is however some risk associated with the advancement of personal identity. It is by no means an entirely natural process; by which I mean to emphasize that certain personal identities may be fabrications not descriptions of solely “personal” identity. Nonetheless both evolutions go hand-in-hand; hence the quip “You can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy!” Personal identity is thus conjoined to the rudimentary realities of one’s life, from beginning to end, a conglomerate of successive transformations.
As for the catalysts of these transformations I suggest the following (in order of priority of influence though not necessarily manifestation):
- family (including ancestors and heirs);
- social contribution (financial and volunteering); and,
- legacy (financial or intellectual).
Certainly not everyone aspires to leave a legacy of any nature whatsoever to the planet. Some may wish to be remembered in a particular way. Others will devote themselves to fulfillment of what they believe to be their particular talents. Yet while each of us is alive we harbour an undeterred sense of personal identity which unwittingly or otherwise we seek to fulfill. Whether this knowledge is sufficient to disturb our activity or enterprise is another question. As one grows older the possibility of wistful regard upon the past is not lost. The nostalgia may be reflective only, not doleful. In either event one must confess that historic credentials (as generous or otherwise as they may have been) are not prescriptive of the future. The point to keep in mind at all times is that the definition of personal identity is strategic only to oneself in spite of our past association of that identity with external causes, people, events and materiality (commonly called “appearances”). Identity like time itself transitions along a scale and never reverts to what it once was. Sometimes the effect of these transitions is corrupted by overpowering elements like alcoholism, murder, catastrophic accident, severe illness or surgery. But it is nonetheless highly unusual for one’s personal identity to be smothered entirely no matter what happens. It is for this very reason that one’s personal identity is so deeply embedded within us – and thus equally nutritious given the strength of even the most moderate wholesomeness.