Faith seeking understanding #029: Pondering the limitations of thinking in terms of identity

Faith seeking understanding, my personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God, the cosmos, humanity and myself through thoughts, words and (occasionally) images, is a series of [hopefully] daily reflections I’m writing with the purpose of publishing something on a regular basis for others to read, either here, at joncarllewis.com or among my writings at Medium.com.

But, wait! Surfers are supposed to…
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash.

I’m wrestling with questions of identity. I’m pretty secure in my own identity at the moment, but I’m intrigued by the concept or the construct of identity: its limits, its power, its reach. Earlier tonight I started listening to an audio recording of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Already I am beginning to see that this thing, this phenomenon we call identity is at once incredibly important and, somehow at the same time, meaningless.

For instance, I think of racial identity. From a societal point of view, race exists as a marker (or non-marker) for individuals, groups, entire classes of people, even. However, biology suggests that there is more diversity within any one race than there are differences between races.

I also think of sexual orientation and its influence or non-influence on identity. What does it mean that a man can have sex with another man and identify as straight, while a teenager can be dating and having sex with someone of the “opposite” sex and, having never had a same-sex experience, identify as gay or queer?

And is there any such thing as a universal experience for all of the members identified with a group? James Finn posted a story on Medium.com entitled “A Boy’s Own Sexual Awakening” which talks about how he as a boy knew he was gay well before puberty and the onset of a more sexual aspect of desire. The story he told so resonated with mine that I immediately sent him a note, explaining that he was practically telling my story. He wrote me back and informed me that my experience was not universal for his gay readers and implied that a large percentage of gay men hadn’t awakened in quite the same way Finn and I seem to have.

So where is this exploration taking me? Again, I’m pretty certain of my identity—my identity as I understand it currently is splashed all over this platform. But I wonder about what I can assume about others—if anything at all—based on their identification with one or several identities. How does one write about the experience of an entire group? Should one? And can identities “conflict”?

Finn suggested a way out: keeping the focus on individual stories. By focusing on individual stories we might be able to come closer to truth than any stereotype ever could. Individual stories have a power all their own to instruct, to illustrate, to capture reality with a nuance a blanket assumption just can’t.

I find, for myself, that the ways I understand my “allegiance” to certain identities are based on defining characteristics that other people who hold to my identity just don’t have, or don’t have in the same way. Yet, I can stand in solidarity with the people whose identity I share, and I can certainly receive the results of society’s attitudes toward people to whose group I “belong”—willing or not.

So I will set aside, for now, my desire to lump people into groups and make assumptions based on how individual people identify. I will focus instead on stories, on hearing the varied experience of individuals. And, to add to the general understanding of humanity, I will continue to tell my own.

Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
Please comment, below, or email me at joncarllewis@gmail.com.
May God richly bless you on your journey.

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Faith seeking understanding #029: Pondering the limitations of thinking in terms of identity

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