On How We Choose Our Identities.

Something interesting happened to me the other night, while coming home from work. I popped off the underground and into the local supermarket, searching out a bottle of cheap plonk to reward myself for surviving once more. Turns out running up a dozen flights of stairs with 5 different trees over my shoulder is thirsty work (my job’s not actually that specific, but I’ll cover it and its ever-changing nature later). Just in the door, I ran into an old friend whom I bump into once every six months or so. The sporadic nature of meetings isn’t through any lack of affection, more through work schedules and the fact that we’re both utterly rubbish.

But this time we decided to actually make a hard and fast arrangement to have a drink and catch up. Queue a trip to the magically organised land of the iPhone, which is far more useful for keeping track of life than a brain is, I discovered my free evenings and offered them.

“Put them on my Facebook!” She commanded. “I’ll check them when I get home.”

Easy enough. There’s an App for that. I load up her wall.

“Wait.” She frowns. “That’s not me. Hold on…”

So what I’d clicked on, through a series of events that I’ve neither time nor inclination to go into, was her previous Facebook profile. It wasn’t that long since she’d stopped using it; maybe three years, but she’d replaced it with a new one, as does happen time to time. No, the new account wasn’t the weird thing.

The weird thing was just how much three years had changed her… or how much she’d changed herself in three years.

The broad strokes, of course, were pretty much the same. Both accounts showed a pretty, intelligent and hardworking girl who can party pretty hard when she finds the time. But beyond that, I was legitimately surprised by the fact that I was shocked by how obviously different the two ‘different’ people were.

I didn’t just have a reaction, I had a reaction to that reaction. Despite seeing her from time to time through this transformation, it wasn’t until putting the two images side by side (and while I say images, this was far from purely a physical change) that I realised just how dramatic it was. Like going on a diet and not necessarily seeing a change day-to-day, but being astounded by the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures taken for records, this seemed to be a case of a hundred negligible changes becoming a change far more than the sum of its parts.

So what prompted this? Getting to 27, one thing I’ve observed enough to state as a ‘fact’ is that change doesn’t happen by accident, it has to be chosen and worked very hard at in order to achieve. Thus, oddly, it would suggest that people who are capable of such change actually have more strongly defined innate character traits than those who either do not, or cannot change when it is either wanted or needed.

Most people go through this kind of change at least once – usually during teenage years; that time at which we are most stubborn and powerful of character. This is because it is at this point, in our adolescence that we first develop the ability to define ourselves. We are no longer simply designed by our parents into something that they find pleasing; from how we dress or style our hair to how we come to behave in our peer social groups. I personally, stopped wearing the flannel shirts that my parents dressed me in as a 10-year-old and began adopting big t-shirts and cargo-pants (hey, it was the late 90s – don’t you dare judge me!). I added far too much gel to my hair in response to the fact that it does nothing of its own accord but go fluffy. I adopted the f-word as far too common a piece of articulation and began to throw myself into ridiculous things that my parents didn’t approve of. I became an amateur professional (if that’s somehow possible) wrestler for a few months. That’s how bad it got.

But this sort of change in an adult life is harder and far less common. Let’s face it, change is difficult. Even getting fat takes a huge amount of energy. No, literally. It takes roughly 205000 kj of chemical energy (give or take) just to get one stone heavier. What about something good? That takes even more.

Change takes a catalytic event. In the case of recovering addicts, it’s hitting rock bottom – there’s a nice tale about Robert Downy Jr. and a truly disgusting burger spurning him into sobriety. In less shocking incidences it can be the birth of a child, or a divorce or, to be honest, anything. After that, it takes pain, endurance and a lot of effort, and even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get to be Iron Man. But the possibility is always there. Unfortunately, though, we usually end up un-deservingly proud of who we are, which makes us inherently resistant even to the idea that we should or need to change. Our mind starts to dig its heels in and begin to insist that it’s the world around us which needs to change, not us.

Who can blame us? After all, our identity was forced in the defeat of our greatest ever enemy – our parents. Surely the work of art that we constructed in our defiance of our creators is the perfect weapon, the perfect tool to dominate life? We fought so hard against the Gods in order to establish what we wanted rather than what they did that surely any later adjustment to that would be admitting defeat… right?

The thing is that the world cares about what our parents want exactly as much as it cares about what we want. So basing any long-term identity on that first rebellion is pretty fucking stupid.

We all do, though.Most of us really don’t change all that much after we enter our 20s. In fairness to us, we know how hard change is, we just went through it. It was tough, emotionally scarring and we quite like the end result. Why would we choose to go through that again and for what possible end? Right? Well, sure. You’re 21, you’re awesome and you’re going to make the world your bitch through the sheer power of your awesomeness.

No.

So the smart ones of us do what my friend did and give it a good reboot at some point, because when was our first attempt at anything ever any good? The first time I wrote a story, I’m fairly sure I mis-spelled the very word ‘story’. It’s ok, I got better. Hopefully, I’ll get better again. The point is that in her mid-twenties, my friend decided “Nope, I’m not getting what I want from the world, evidently I got something wrong first time around, let’s have another stab at this.” Now she has two degrees and works for one of the largest news organisations in the country. Granted, she has some horror stories about the reactions she sometimes gets from colleagues and superiors, so there may be another editing at some point in the future. I suppose we’ll see.

So what do we do about it? Well, what do you want to do about it? Me? I want to learn to draw. In terms of writing and storytelling, it’s a marketable skill. Thus with that skill, I can offer more to the world and (hopefully) be rewarded more, in return.

It’s what my friend did, it’s what I’m going to do, why not try it yourself? You’re not that great, despite the fact that you beat your parents when you were just a teenager. In all honesty, they weren’t that tough.

The world is though. So quit digging those heels in and dig deep instead. That’s what your 20s are about. Life starts kicking your ass. So is that first-draft identity you formed the kind to let it happen, or the kind to get back on its feet, get better and get as awesome as you reckon you are?

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