About three years ago, I went through a divorce that was more like a violent shootout than a pragmatic goodbye. The relationship my wife and I had nurtured over eight years collapsed in a matter of weeks. We went from best friends to worst enemies in the same amount of time we had spent vacationing together in Seattle one summer, drinking wine in bed, watching boats cross the Puget Sound from thirty stories up, up, up above the busy world below. In that moment, I felt like we could stay that high forever so long as we were together. But Kurt Cobain’s wails still haunt Seattle like the decaying foundations of its underground. “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me,” Cobain demanded, channeling Lead Belly’s anguish, “Tell me where did you sleep last night.” The relationship ended in infidelity, treachery, and deceit.
I speak on this topic not so much to exorcise my demons but to explore the human condition. We occupy a world that hurts—cuts through us with reckless abandon—and leaves us with mental and physical scars that we can trace through introspective interrogation and/or outward stimulation. As I look back on my divorce, I realize I suffered a break in the weeks after I discovered the answer to Cobain’s bitter demand. The person I was then and the person I am now are not one and the same. But I possess a sense of continuity between these two supposed versions of myself that suggests static identity. There is, in other words, someone that experienced both the beautiful vacation in Seattle and the ugly trauma of infidelity. It would take a mad scientist opening up my skull with the explicit purpose of breaking me to eliminate this sense of continuity.
So what is identity, then? My fellow authors and I have explored this question more than any other so far. I suspect that all of us have suffered painful transformations in the recent past that force us to confront our former selves and why they feel so different from our present selves. ferox wonders why Utah doesn’t seem to recognize his existence even though he’s spent much of his life here. “I was born into a prison,” he says, “my body did not match my eyes, and I was stuffed into attire that chafed no matter the cut.” In the struggle to locate her identity, missdansie answers questions once posed to her in school and asserts that, “Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I should be silent; my name is April, and I am searching for my voice.” All of us are searching for our identities against the dynamic changes we’ve endured and, in many cases, overcome. We write, as we say, “because we believe that, by sharing our stories, we connect with others who might need community to combat isolation,” but we do so from positions of ambiguous identities. We’re still trying to figure shit out. We definitely don’t have all of the answers. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to tell you what identity is, for example, but that’s not going to stop us from exploring the question.
Not too long ago, I came across an article from Aeon Magazine that made an observation concerning identity that I had never considered. When we think about identity, psychologist Nina Strohminger argued, we usually think about it in terms of how we take autobiographical memories and turn them into personal narratives. But what if identity has less to do with me as an individual and more to do with me as a member of a community? Let’s say that someone opened up my skull, scrambled my brain matter, sewed me back up, and by some miracle of modern medicine, I survived the procedure with neurotypical features intact. I wouldn’t be the same person. This might cause me some distress—if for some reason my autobiographical memories and personal narratives remained—but how would my friends and family experience it? My post-divorce break may’ve changed the way I perceived the world, but I’d like to think that people still saw me as fundamentally similar to who I was before. My friends and family would experience me as a completely different person had some mad scientist scrambled my brain matter.
Maybe, Strohminger said, we spend too much time thinking of identity in terms of who we think we are when we should be considering it in terms of who we are to others. That’s not to say that we should spend all of our time worrying about what others think of us. On the contrary, it only means that we should spend less time on who we are as individuals and more time on who we are in relation to others. What really matters to our loved ones is not what we think of ourselves—because ultimately they have no access to that—but how we treat them. Do we treat them well? Is our treatment of them consistent with our stated principles? This is as important to our identities as autobiographical memories and personal narratives because we do not exist in isolation. We exist as part of a community.