Never before in modern times has the crisis of identity been so central to our daily interaction with the world. Many may disagree with this assessment given that identity has been a cause for many a wars, political turmoil, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The crisis of identity I am referring to is more psychological than political. But first, let's deal with political identity. The thing with political identities is that they are impermanent. They may change with the change in political winds and the demands of the current economic and political realities.
The genesis of political identity lies in the outsider-insider mindset and in the victim-perpetrator paradigm.
We are continually creating newer realms where someone will inevitably be the outsider and others insider. We have such a fascination for walls that if we were to create something of beauty and worth, we would ensure it's bordered by impenetrable forts and walls.
And in our survival mode, we tend to invest far more on maintaining walls than on enhancing, reforming and contemporising what lies inside.
Since humans have endless capacity for abstractions, these physical walls soon become mental walls. All the conflicts of identity that we encounter today are products of those mental walls — relics of the past that we keep in the museum of our collective memory, seldom realising that they are less of a connection with who we are and more a veil of separation — “I am not you”.
If that's the edifice on which we construct our identity — “I am not you” — then we leave gaping psychological holes for anyone wanting to manipulate our sensitivities and sensibilities. Such walls are also the cause of biases and prejudices we harbour against the psychological “Other” — who again is not a permanent entity.
It is one thing to be culturally rooted and quite another to derive a sense of exclusivity bordering on superiority from our association with a specific culture. Cultural anchoring for a stable sense of identity is a legitimate psychological need. But this healthy need can turn into a dysfunctionality when pride and a sense of misplaced superiority comes into play. Much like addiction to food, or porn or any other dysfunctional coping mechanisms, a pathological need to derive our worth from our identity — be it cultural or political (the lines are always blurred and feed on each other) — is a means of filling a bottomless emotional hole inside us.
Given that we increasingly live in a complex world where identity doesn't have a centrifugal force, a massive external force seems to be splitting us into many pieces. As modern millennials, we are expected to be woke and at the same time aware of our cultural roots lest someone calls us ignorant; we are expected to be hyper-aware of our past, while also being cosmopolitan; we are expected to be sexually liberated, at the same time boxed by orientation; we are expected to be identified by our food habits while also resisting state interference in defining what we eat. We are expected to be identified as some or the other ever-increasing sociological categories.
Yet, at our core, we remain unsure of who we exactly are in essence and how we manifest ourselves, making us all the more vulnerable to the ever-mushrooming identity shops being set up in every nook and corner of every cultural and political club. Even though these clubs operate on far more liberal principles, they remain largely exclusive when it comes to diversity of thoughts and beliefs.
Various esoteric traditions, be it Sufism or Advaita of the Hindu philosophy, have tried to solve the problem of identification with a certain aspect of our being or surrounding and erroneously make it central to our identity. They deny the existence of the self, and claim that it is not in being hyper-aware of the voices in our head, but in the complete losing of the self that we achieve liberation from the conflicts arising out of identity.
This is experienced as oneness with all organisms, or a sense of merging with a divine entity like a God or a meta-lover. These again are all part of psychological experience available in the Disneyland of meta experiences. For humans who have evolved from centuries of living in survival mode and tribalistic affiliations, such a model hardly provides a practical solution although such text acts like balm on days we indeed want to lose ourselves.
If we can live in the awareness that we are all the things that we are identified with — a relative, a citizen, a vegan/or non-vegan, an animal lover, a professional, a religious/spiritual entity and none of it at the same time, probably we will be able to protect ourselves from falling victim to manipulation of our worst impulses that we carry from an evolutionary history of surviving traumatic event.
Our only commitment is to our spiritual growth that fortifies us against cultural and political demands that always tries to over-feed one specific aspect of our identity resulting in its malignant growth.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)