Hall of Mirrors: Reflecting on Identity

A Young Adult Service with Amber Dawn Bellemare, Mona Luxion, Casey Stainsby, 6 April 2014

Today is our annual Young Adult service. To be a young adult in the UU community, you are not necessarily required to be between the ages of 18 and 35. This time of life is known by many to be full of transience and transition as we move from what was considered to be youth into what is considered to be formal adulthood.  It looks and feels differently for everyone, and changes with the winds. Some are busy making families, some are away or home studying or honing skills.  Others are searching, searching, searching or doing it all at the exact same time...

For some Young Adults, this is the only day we make it into church on a Sunday morning. As many will tell you, Sunday mornings become sacred for very different reasons. This is the morning we set aside to come together (those of us who can) and bridge the gap through stories, music and simply showing up. We are glad you came today.

Last month our group sat around a kitchen table discussing themes and enjoying a potluck brunch. I pulled out a red duotang with an interesting translation of the Tao inside. Be cool, it said. Literally. Page 6 or something. The first stanza will be our chalice lighting, and it sparked a dynamic conversation about naming things. Today’s service is about that precarious and fragile thing we call identity in the words and music of a few Young Adults who dared to look in the mirror and reflect back on what they saw.

Chalice lighting: 
    If you can talk about it,
    it ain't Tao.
    If it has a name,
    it's just another thing.

    Tao doesn't have a name.
    Names are for ordinary things.   
Tao Te Ching translated by Ron Hogan

Opening Words by Madeline L’Engle
    I hold you! I love you, I Name you. You are not nothing. You are.
I fill you with Naming.
Be, butterfly and behemoth,
be galaxy and grasshopper,
star and sparrow,
you matter,
you are,
Be caterpillar and comet,
Be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
seagulls and seraphim
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim.
 (O cherubim.)
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation
sing with us
dance with us
be with us.

Thoughts on Conceptualizing Identity by Isobel Flader-Gibson

I'm currently a student in “Cultural Studies”, a field that is notoriously critical and often leads to theorizing (sometimes about things that don't need to be theorized). One of the more practical things I have learned in my short stint of academia is that in order to have a coherent discussion about a topic, the participants must agree on a way to define the concepts that are being discussed. This can prove to be a difficult task, especially with more abstract concepts such as “Culture”, which is among the root questions of the discipline. So I thought this might be an appropriate opportunity to synthesize some of the reading and thinking I have done about “Identity” – another one of those concepts that can be difficult to talk about together, and particularly difficult to define in any uniform way.

First, I believe it's worth highlighting the subjective and fluid nature of identity. We are talking about something that changes in significance and meaning depending on the context in which it is used, and the person who is using it. We might think of identity as a sort of exterior shell consisting of multiple layers, a composition of our collected experiences that serve to define us in a mostly superficial way. The basic question “Who am I?” can easily become “Who am I compared to you?” or “How am I different (from you)?” These are just some basic examples of how we might conceive identity on a primary level.

But I also think that identity has some deeper, internal significance, again related to the idea of cumulative experience, resulting from such reflections as: where do I come from? How have the stories I've lived, the people I've met, the places I've been, and so forth, played a role in the construction of Me, as well as the lens I use to perceive the world?

Many “Great Writers and Thinkers” (we must always be skeptical of canon, particularly when it involves “dead white men”) have tackled the question of identity. Allow me to name-drop for a few minutes as I try to synthesize some ideas that might help us reflect on identity together. These reflections are the result of a seminar group I've been participating in this year, tackling the daunting question of “East versus West” throughout history, in philosophy, sociology, and geopolitics. In no particular sequence...
●    Contemporary philosopher Paul Ricoeur prompts us to think of Identity as “mêmeté”; “sameness” or “likeness”; a sense of unity. I would consider this more related to collective identity or social categories.
●    I particularly like the “bundle-theory” of the Scottish philosopher David Hume (18th century): that our identity is a kind of illusion built from an accumulated bundle of our experiences and perceptions
●    If we delve deeper into questions of nationalism and the construction of the Nation-State, we can also think of Identity as being directly related to the concept of Modernity and the promotion of individualism (Charles Taylor talks about this); the quest for     defining oneself in a sort of neoliberal/capitalist environment that we could call the “supermarket of personal labels”
●    Freud talks about personal identity (or psyche) as consisting of 3 elements: the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego. Plato also has a similar theory about the human soul as being divided into 3 parts: the desiring, the reasoning, and the moral part that seeks to     reconcile the two others. Plato also proposed that when we look another person in the eyes, we see a reflection of ourselves.
●    Descartes was among the first to advance a philosophical theory of the subject or Cogito with his famous phrase: “Je pense donc je suis”. Neitzsche later challenged this theory with his concept of perspectivism: that objective truth is improbable, and that all that we perceive and understand is the result of our “bundles”.
●    More recently, Michel Foucault proposed in his Subjectivité et vérité that “being” is an impermanent notion, that we are constantly in a state of transformation. In other works, he suggests that a sense of self or identity is necessarily the product of power relations, particularly when it comes to collective identity, a cultural/national sense of belonging.
We can think about identity in a variety of ways, as a collective or individual experience, as a series of labels or social categories, or as a more complex process of self-discovery, trial and error, events, memories and reflections. These are just a few examples of conceptualizing that has already been done about identity. My hope is that they open new avenues to allow us to reflect on some of the broad questions that we will explore together this morning.

On Mirrors and Names by Mona Luxion

When I was a kid, I was taught race should never be noticed, or if noticed, never mentioned. "We're all the same inside," was the well-intentioned motto, never explaining why that logic didn't extend to pointing out red hair and glasses; why some things were nameable and others were not.
Fast forward about twenty years, and I'm explaining to my mom that I'm neither a woman nor a man but something else — genderqueer. "I love you," she says, "but why do you have to label yourself? Can't you just be?"

Many people share this idea that labels are inherently divisive and, therefore, bad. But that is not the only view.For example, today's opening words were a passage from A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L'Engle. Earlier in the book, the character Proginoskes says the following:
"The last time I was with a Teacher – or at school, as you call it – my assignment was to memorize the names of the stars."
"Which stars?" [Asked Meg]
"All of them. ... they like it; there aren't many who know them all by name, and if your name isn't known, then it's a very lonely feeling. ... When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That's basically a Namer's job."

A good label, then, does not create difference, but recognizes the diversity that is already there. When I name myself — as a Unitarian, as an anarchist, as genderqueer — I am claiming existing terms that reflect a part of myself in order to clarify that part and shine a light on it.

And with these identities comes community: people whose experiences or beliefs match mine, not exactly, but enough to feel connected. More than that, for those of us who don't always see ourselves represented in the mainstream, a shared, named identity provides a sense of belonging. "I see you," it says. "You are."

Although I talk of naming myself, our identities are rarely freely chosen. That which is Other is typically called out and named by society, while what's 'normal' goes unnoticed. To use a simple example, in the US I am a bilingual, second-generation immigrant, while here I am an Anglophone American.

But identities imposed upon us can be claimed (reclaimed?) and given a new kind of power. I may not have any choice in who I am attracted to, but when I name myself as queer I hold up a mirror to the 'norm' and reveal its limitations. People collectively claiming the identities that exclude them, and repurposing them as a source of strength, have been at the root of transformative liberation movements here and around the world.

Lastly, there are some things which aren't often named — but should be. Just as reclaiming terms that exclude us can reflect where the 'norm' falls short, naming the normalized, privileged positions we hold can also be powerful. When I name myself as white; physically abled; upper middle class; born, bred, and educated in Western/settler culture, I open myself up to seeing that my experiences and worldview are not universal.

In contrast, when naming race becomes taboo, we lose the language we need to discuss how racism continues to exist — and thus to confront it. When we act as though people should just "be themselves", without labels, we ignore that our ability to conceive of things often depends on our ability to name them.

But my mom does have a point (she usually does.) Names can help us be more particularly our particular selves, but they can also confine us and keep us from truly finding who we are. This happens when we are forced to choose between two labels that don't quite fit, for example, or seen as a label first and a person second.

If labels are the mirrors we hold up to ourselves and others, then we must never lose track of the fact that those 2-dimensional images can only approximate the richness of our three-dimensional selves.

Nonetheless, we cannot go without names, either, but must Name ourselves and others carefully, insightfully, lovingly.
I see you.
You are.

Meditation by Amber Dawn Bellemare

There was a time when writing about identity would have come easy.
But every time I pinpoint any of it, it dissolves in my hands and falls between my fingers.
It’s complicated.
You cannot bottle this up;
you cannot sell it at the market.
It is the stuff inside and the blown glass that surrounds it.
It is that little string that I was told connects us all.
It is every song that finds a way
and the words that never reached my ears.

What armor is thick enough to protect my soft raw flesh?
Is it that thing we call identity?
What carves my myth into the stone of the earth?
Is it that thing I cling to when there is nothing left to kick against?
When will I learn that wind, sand, rain carves deeper than my story?

Who I am is in the thick of it now.
Who you see is only half of it.
I am unsure a compass rose does any good, anymore.

So I let the damp of the woods cool the fire.
I honour my faith
and I honour my path;
it is mine and mine alone to walk
That’s my style.

I am too self-aware to say anything to anyone.
I speak in echoes, we all echo back to one another
That’s our style.

I see you, I see me in you, I see you in me.
I like you, you’re easy, stay close

I don’t like you, you rub me the wrong way
but I am not allowed to say as much
that would be gossip and
you could be me.

What if I bared it all up here?
where would we be then?
would there be nothing left?
or will it pool at our feet?
soft ripples of dissolved identity droplets from up above
reflect in eddies
and circle our ankles of empathy.
I feel with you
because I see you
It feels so good to be seen

and yet better when dissolved between our holding hands, nothing left to worry about

I see you and as a settler in this terrain I have lost the myth from where I came.
The land of my ancestors has no story to tell me.

Can I hear yours?….I do love the sound of yours.

How can I get back to my motherland, back to mother’s love that I once found buried deep in the rose quartz in the centre of the universe?

I envision myself at the centre of two centres: 
Mother’s Love, from which I was born
and the Galactic Centre –
the future from where I have already been. 

It is the journey, they say.
Each moment is the destination
In this sense, I have arrived.
In this sense, I never left.

Sitting here in this moment,
know that you are safe. 
You are exactly where you should be,
and you are loved.

Whoever you are.
You could be me.
And I will bare it all for you.
Whoever I am
for whoever you are.
It just feels so good to be seen.

Reflection on Archetypes and Gender by Casey Stainsby

My reflections on identity today have a lot to do with something we have learned to call gender, but my thoughts also reach far beyond the limits of this concept. When I talk about archetypes and the collective unconscious later on, I am referring primarily to the legacy of Carl Jung, but also to the work of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves, and to the tradition of the Tarot. I should warn you right now that this discussion requires far more nuance than I have time for right now, and that I am bringing a lot more questions than answers to this stage of the conversation.

We have seen that labels are limiting, that labeling can be an act of affirmation, and that it is generally helpful to agree upon what exactly is being implied by a certain label. We’re taught from the day we were born that when it comes to gender, there are two labels available to us, and most of us grow up understanding that this part of our identity is somehow decided by what kind of body we are born into (by the way, apparently there are only two available body types, too). This gender factor is also logically supposed to influence our personalities: boys will be boys and girls will be girls, so we are told. It seems simple enough. And, so I’m told, for most people, in most places in the world, it is.

We make these links based on a debatable combination of the biological functions of bodies, so-called essence, and socialization. And so, femaleness is associated with femininity, with nurturing, the Earth, darkness, intuition, mystery. And we associate maleness with masculinity, with action, the Sun, light, discernment, reason.

And yet. It seems to me that there is so much more to what it is to be human than what these two simple options offer to us. My own experience, and that of increasingly more of my acquaintances, friends and lovers tells me that even when it is true that my body signifies that I should identify with feminine qualities and I find no particular conflict in that, (indeed, I might even feel a deep resonance) that there is also, always, more to the story. And especially for those who do not resonate with what their bodies signify, there must be more ways of explaining and exploring this thing we call gender.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation about this intriguing facet of identity with an exceptionally insightful person, and this teacher opened up a whole new world to me when they said that they identified more as a seer, or a magician, or a trickster, than as a woman or a man. Of course, I thought, archetypes. There exist archetypes of the masculine and the feminine in a wide variety of expressions, but there are also archetypal figures that exist in between, or apart from, or transcendent of those two easily identifiable energies. Here, possibly, is another language, or another way of conceptualizing aspects of our personalities, that recognizes both masculinity and femininity in their wide diversity, and accounts for that which is both, or neither, or more than.

Because the thing about archetypes is that they exist beyond human life, in the collective unconscious, which we are all connected to. And so whether we know it consciously or not, all archetypes are available to us all. They are formless, and deep, and frankly beyond full human comprehension. Because we have form, our form limits our understanding. But what if we could see how these archetypal forces, the Maiden, the Mother, the Crone, the Son, the Father, the Warrior King, the Witch-Healer, the Magician, the Trickster, the Fool, and the Source-of-all-Great-Creator, exist in all of us at some level? We are each drawn to recognizing certain ones in ourselves more than others, and some of these energies have been encouraged in us while others actively repressed. And, like all aspects of identity, what is most important at one moment will surely change and evolve as we grow.

I know I am missing some important pieces of the equation here, and have perhaps misrepresented some highly developed philosophies of identity by over simplifying. But I am grateful for this opportunity to share an exciting thought process that I am immersed in, and I would really love to hear your thoughts and reactions after the service. If nothing else I have said has any meaning for you, than I ask only that you leave with this question: beyond simply male or female and whatever you take that to imply, who are you?

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