Although we tend to think of ourselves as separate individuals, all that we encounter while going through our lives becomes part of who we are, a process vividly set forth in Rachel Turiel’s article posted yesterday on Shift Journal.  From the microorganisms that take up residence in our bodies to the ideas and information that we get from our society, there’s a lot more involved in creating the individual self than we perceive.

The assumption of permanence is closely related to the concept of the separate individual.  Whatever self-image we have today is probably going to be about the same tomorrow.  We don’t generally see ourselves as changing much, if at all; and while we may occasionally take a moment to reflect on the experiences we had when we were younger, we gain only a limited amount of insight into how much we have changed over the years.

A corollary of the assumption that we don’t often change is the tendency to see others’ identities as permanent and predictable.  Of course, looking at others in this way had evolutionary survival value in the days of violent tribal societies; back then, you weren’t likely to live long if you didn’t keep track of who might try to kill you.  And such conclusions didn’t go far wrong in those days, either, when everyone had a rigidly defined place in society and knew exactly what it was.

In today’s chaotic and rapidly changing world, however, the old rules have broken down.  We can’t accurately predict by looking at a person today what he or she will do in the future.  There are more lifestyle options, more career opportunities, more social flexibility, and the potential for greater cultural and technological change than at any time in history.

And because our world has become so interconnected these days, we’re also quickly gaining much more understanding of what’s missing from the simplistic assumptions and stereotypes of the past, as Stephanie Allen Crist commented in response to my post last week:

“This is definitely a more rapid change than human beings are used to seeing–and that speed has caused its own resistance. But the speed of change is also understandable. We are able to connect with each other more readily, and see through our collective experiences that the “other” truly is ourselves.”

When we consider how much our culture has taken for granted as permanent and how often such assumptions have fallen by the wayside in recent years because of social and technological changes, we may find the resulting lack of certainty to be a scary thing; but it’s also quite liberating, I would say, to explore how many possibilities exist.

on 12/8/10 in featured, Society | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. Stephanie says:

    I’d like to hope that more people lean towards liberation than fear. My hope may be misplaced (I’ve never been very good at applying the concept of statistics to people; it just seems disrespectful to me).

    I was recently re-reading an old post of mine that received a new comment, and I think it applies. Basically, though the post itself is whimsical, I talk about the transformative shifts that parents of children with developmental delays look for and hope for, and compare it to the incremental shifts that actually occur.

    We all change. We change in little ways every day. Sometimes those changes reinforce our perception of ourselves. For example, every time I am complimented on my writing it reinforces my sense of myself as a writer. Yet, even though it reinforces something that was already there, it is a change.

    Other times those changes shift us to something new. These are harder to notice (at least for me) for some reason. It’s like I cannot see the shift until it’s made. For example, once I considered myself a political blogger. I was a political blogger. Slowly, I pulled away from politics. I stopped investing in it. And now, while I’ll dabble in it occassionally, I’m no longer a political blogger. But I continued to see myself as one even after I stopped being one.

    These shifts occur on an individual level, but they also occur on a social level. The shifts can be hard to see. There are a small number of people moving towards something new-like acceptance of autistics-and then the number grows and grows until the shift itself cannot be denied. But it is resisted. Much like the self that does not want to give up what it once was, society changes only relunctantly, not able to see that what was is no longer.

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    I recall reading a post by Bev at Square 8 about the concept of a master identity and how it changes slowly over time. You’ve given a good example of how that works, Stephanie, by describing how you once thought of yourself as a political blogger and gave up that identity only gradually after you had already changed what you were doing.

    I believe you’re quite right that society also changes its perception of its collective identity, without understanding how far the change will reach. Right now I’d say that we are going through a long-term process of discarding our collective identity as a society that insists on normality and conformity, replacing that outlook with a new identity as a society that values diversity. That shift appears to be at the root of many of the modern world’s conflicts.

  3. Stephanie says:

    It will be interesting to see how this shift plays out-though, I suspect the full impact of the shift won’t be visible in our lifetimes. There is so much diversity in the world, and that diversity touches every facet of human existence, and there is so much resistance to recognizing and facilitating that diversity.

    In one respect, I think that resistance is self-defensive. People certainly react self-defensively to differences, as if they perceive the differences themselves as threatening. I think the reality is something else, though. The human mind is limited. It’s difficult to process all the differences; it’s difficult to process all the people without categorizing each other somehow. I suspect, before the shift will be complete, we will need to develop a new way of thinking about other people, in order to process individuals versus categories of people. Much like the younger generations have developed new ways to think about technology. It’s a different way of thinking.

    We can learn that to some extent, but it also requires unlearning other things. It’s easier to be raised to embrace diversity in all its forms than it is to unlearn categorizing others and then learn to see others as individuals.

  4. Isabel says:

    The first lines in your introduction reminded me of egún, a powerful concept that I learned about from a friend who knows a lot about santería, a Caribbean spiritual tradition with roots in the Yoruba culture (from Africa).

    As I remember my friend telling it, egún is about a feeling or spirit that comes from the past and from history. Like anyplace you’ve ever been in might have an egún that stays with you and is with you when you are in the room now. In this present moment you carry spirits from the past. (And the room holds your spirit once you’ve left.) Many times I felt like this was so true. Like I was not me alone — I was my father, my grandmother, my teachers and all their mistakes and all their struggles and triumphs were with me. I both: stood on their shoulders and paid for their errors.

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