“Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”
― Albert Camus
The holiday season for me always brings to the surface thoughts on my own identity. Although both of my parents are dead, Thanksgiving and Christmas push to the surface the unavoidable past that shaped who I am today. The longer my parents have been gone, the harder it becomes to recall precisely the events of my youth, but the emotional residue is still there. As a friend of mine once said, “parents don’t push your buttons, they created your buttons.” These buttons, or emotional residue, persist in the background like an invisible army planning for battle. When the soft contours of nostalgia take shape during our holiday gatherings, emotion gets the better of us, and our vulnerability to the invisible army is at its peak. It is when this army attacks that we are forced to confront our sense of selves, our identity the most. Are we merely the putty that was shaped by others or do we have our own sense of identity outside of the sentimental sediment of our past?
This tension arises due to the fact the instruction we received from our parents, either directly or indirectly, was given in a different point in time, in my case the 60’s and 70’s. What content from that period of time is still remotely relevant now in this post-truth, postmodern, post-everything era we live in? My father stayed at the same job for 31 years. Both of my grandfathers worked at their respective companies for more than four decades. Do you know anyone who has held the same job for twenty years or more? How long do most of the people you know stay at the same job? When I got out of college, it was widely frowned upon so have anything on your resume that reflected a tenure of fewer than four years. Now, I think we begin to question people who stay at a job longer than five years. Why haven’t they grown or sought new interests professionally, we think. That’s just one example of how much the cultural norms have changed since the 1970s. We’re walking around with guidance in our head that is mostly outdated from people who see us as if we were frozen in time, still the children we once were when we lived at home. Even when they’re gone their voices remain in our heads, questioning our choices and reminding us of their parental guidance.
Beyond the context of time and place, there is also the realization that how we live our lives is entirely different from anyone else. Our thoughts, our experiences, and our production is wholly our own. It is undoubtedly influenced and shaped by our family, friends, partners, and society, but it belongs to only ourselves. We have to hold this up against the expectations of everyone we interact with to retain a real sense of self instead of playing a role that satisfies the expectations of others.
Identity is a persistent journey toward what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan referred to as the big Other. We are striving our whole lives to shape our identity toward a symbolic ideal, something which is outside of ourselves and ultimately accepting of us. The framework for this expectation arises out of the dynamic between our parents and us. Often the father is the law-giver, the firm hand of structure, rules, and societal compliance, and our mothers are our connection to love and desire. During the holidays we reunite with our mothers and fathers, if even through memory and we try to reassemble this construct of our origination. These people who raised us taught us in effect to desire this big Other but they are not it. Our identity therefore always lives in a tenuous state of incompletion bound by our struggle to achieve the unachievable. There is no big Other. We will never find the single point focus of absolute love and acceptance from someone else. That reality is often too horrible to address directly because it means that our identity as we know it is a fiction. More importantly, our sense of selves is wholly dependent on what we alone design based on the inputs of our lives. It may be that during the holidays when emotions run high we hold our greatest desire for the big Other and our gathering together is an attempt to mutually realize this shared secret obsession.
In the past few years, there have been filmic explorations of our individual relationship with identity in the age of celebrity. The first was Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant mockumentary I’m Still Here (2010) and this year Jim Carrey’s, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017) which documents Carrey’s portrayal of Andy Kaufman in the film Man on the Moon (1999). Both films explore the concept of identity but from different perspectives. Phoenix’s exploration is one of irony that wants to dismantle the shallow expectations that celebrity is something to be desired and that identity is something that should be cherished as a private concern. Jim Carrey’s documentary reveals the dangers of letting your identity get lost, no matter how imperfect. Watching these two films provides a framework for seeing our sense of self as simultaneously precious and impossible outside of others. We carry with us the emotional and intellectual content of our childhoods, and we mash that up against all of the experiences we have living as adults in this world. We fumble around in the dark for some sense of self that defines us enough to both stand out and to fit in. It’s a precarious tightrope act, and more often than not we would instead assume the roles given to us than write our own. We know that we are insignificant in the context of the universe, but we need to be seen none-the-less. The reason there is no big Other is that the big Other is love. It’s not a place on a map or a particular person we can emulate, it’s the abstraction of what it means to be human. Perhaps if we remind ourselves to love more and to strive for an identity less, that we’ll actually find our identit, and we’ll let go of our buttons. It’s something worth considering.