A brief history of Identity

“Have you ever considered that the whole world his shaped by a lack of words”
 -George Orwell, 1984

 There is a word, tatamae, that means the way we act, and the the things we pretend to believe so that others may accept us.

 I tell you about tatamae so that I may talk about identity; because tatmae is the evil twin of identity. Whereas identity asks “Who am I”, tatamae claims “I am this”.

“You are not your {…} your khaki pants”
 -Tyler Durden, Fight Club

In recent years I’ve seen a real struggle within society, a desire by others to claim their identity rather than to let it grow from introspection and awareness, a “fast food” method to life.

My own story of identity is strongly tied to a desire to be a finished product rather than a process. Coming from a rural area I stuck out like a sore thumb, I had learned to speak by watching television and therefore did not have the local accent.

I read books, watched documentaries, and enjoyed PBS; for the area I was an odd ball to say the least. My total lack of social skills didn’t help with my emotional state, or give my parents confidence that I wouldn’t embarrass them should I be allowed to go out on my own.

Then something began to change, my father was granted visitation rights, and convinced me to join the Boy Scouts of America. I was 15 when I first joined but threw myself into the culture with great fervor.

In 3 years’ time I had earned the rank of Eagle Scout a feat that left some people scratching their heads. To this day I still quote my oath and laws:


“A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly… etc.”

 “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty …”


The beauty of the scout laws are in their descriptive quality not I am, but a scout is; there is a choice in becoming these things. “On my Honor”, not “I will without deviation”: you can hold on to an idea like honor giving it meaning and value, or let it go since it’s just a word. I had to ask myself what did honor mean to me, and the meaning made the difference.

Flash forward a few years and I’m studying martial arts. While Karate didn’t make me Chuck Norris it did allow me to face the fear of confrontation, and when particular blowhards lost to me in sparing matches there was a level of satisfaction I can’t deny. The best thing that era of my life taught me was that fear is overcome by doing. There was a beauty in the moment of competition where I lost the world around me and found how flow. Tatamae teaches you to be afraid, identity teaches you to flow, to be and to be content.

But it wasn’t until college that I began to apply this, those years at the university removed from my rural area and exposed to diversity I began to flourish. I’ve been known to tell people that I was raised in North Carolina, but born in Oklahoma, because that’s where I felt I became a person.

It was there I met good friends with values, and went to counseling. It was there that I wasn’t the odd kid, but a hard worker and introspective.

It was there I was able to make connections with people on the basis of values and not social circles, or neighborhoods. It was a place where people got a second chance and could reinvent themselves out side of their comfort zone.

It was a place where you found out who you really were.
A place where meaning triumphs over ceremony.


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