Can Europe Make It?

Who is it that I am?

'Identity is what we’ve got, and at the same time it is what we haven’t got.'

Christos Tombras
9 July 2021, 9.34am
Author's image

I am thinking of identity. I am trying to understand identity. I’d like to pretend it’s a simple matter, but I know it isn’t. Identity is a concept that is supposed to allow me some deeper understanding. We see ourselves as who and what we are, within the shared experience of being among others who coincide with us in who and what they see themselves to be.

I am trying to understand identity. I know this: Identity is not something self-evident. It couldn’t be. In order to be able to conceptualise identity you first need to be able to discern and register difference. It’s only on the basis of difference that identity becomes possible. That is, on the basis of time.

This is where it becomes difficult.

What identity offers you is an easy way to escape time. This is what the philosopher taught us. Did he say that? No. He only wanted us to open our eyes, so we might see clearly what we had already seen but forgotten. He wanted us to open our eyes again to the phenomenon itself. You can’t have identity unless you see difference, and you can’t see difference unless you are in time. You are in time anyway – that’s the trick. Because of that, you can see change. That is, you can see difference. But you cannot see what you see unless you put time in brackets. (Of course it’s not you who does that: it’s language that puts time in brackets.)

So, that’s the story. As soon as I bracket time, I can re-interpret difference in terms of identity. It’s not a proper re-interpretation, however, it’s a cheat. I might have thought I have bracketed time, but I haven’t stopped it. The singer has said it: Time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me.

That’s the predicament: we, beings in time, subjects of language, subjects of change, eyewitness the impossibility of identity; and yet we all go about our lives claiming that identity is all we’ve got. Or rather, that it is all that we’ve got to get, even if we don’t have it.

Don’t we?

If we don’t, then who are we? Who are you? Who am I? Who is writing these lines?

It’s complicated.

Identity is what we’ve got, and at the same time it is what we haven’t got. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as something that we’d like to have on the basis that everybody else has it. Or seems to have it.

That’s the bigger predicament: We walk the earth trying to figure out what our identity can be, by mirroring others who we think are safe and comfortable in their own identities. I mirror you. You seem pretty ok to my eyes. I made a good choice. And now, I, too, am pretty ok.

Who am I?

I speak to people. This is what they tell me. They tell me they don’t know what they want. They tell me they don’t know who they are. They show me they cannot escape what the others wanted them to be.

Who are they? Are they men? Are they women? Who do they talk to? Who am I?

What are they? Are they fathers? Mothers? They are daughters. They are women. Or men?

What do they want? Do they want something? They do want something.

What are they? What do they want? Do they want at all?

I speak to people. They tell me they try to guess. They all try to guess. Each and every one of us. We all keep on trying. To mirror the Other. To guess. Each and every one of us. A hall of mirrors.

We succumb to the Other’s demands. Or expectations. Or hopes. What does the Other want from me? How am I to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man? Can I? Will I?

I doubt. I worry. I panic. I am frightened. You are too. Am I right to be here? Am I allowed here? Who writes these lines? Am I allowed to write these lines? Who am I? What is here? Am I a man? Am I a woman? Am I a son? Will they love me? Do they love me? What does this all mean?

And on we try; we try hard. We try to hold on to identities we doubt we have, in the vain hope that they can show us what we are. What are we? We are born this way. Or so the singer sings.

No, we are not born this way, she’s got this wrong. Unless she meant, born this way: in doubt. Then, yes. That’s what we are. Uncertain, in this cruel game that time plays with us. It is a game based on the assumption (or should I say, “hope”?) that the one thing that can stand between us and nothingness is whatever we can – at last – assert as our identity. It’s a false assumption. Identity is a façade. Identities are cheats. They are but ways to cheat time, to pretend that nothing changes, to pretend we always knew who we are.

We did not.

This Splinter was first published in the July 1 edition.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData