The Perfect Paradox of Identity

Saturday, May 9, 2020
Glendale, California

The Perfect Paradox of Identity

On the one hand, most psychologists and philosophers agree that, to function effectively as an adult, you need a cohesive sense of identity.

The narrative should be coherent, have a certain stability, and include other features: 

  1. It typically consists of sets of nouns tied together with verbs—big surprise. 
  2. It includes commonly understood social constructs like father, son, wife, or architect, physician, or carpenter. 
  3. Identity might change at times, i.e. “I was out sick with a fractured leg,” but other historical aspects of the narrative would persist unchanged, i.e. “I am a 48-year-old, Latino physician male, married with two sons, and I work in a free clinic in Hacienda Heights.”
  4. Your narrative is understood by those around you. They similarly identify you by job, social role, geography, perhaps ethnicity, etc.
  5. In fact, social relationships serve a little-known, unconscious function—reassuring us that we still fit in the net of human reality. Every time you visit with a friend, you’re assessing clothing, mannerisms, gestures, and other signs of identity; you’re unconsciously ensuring you have not strayed too far from the crowd.

On the other hand, these identities are absolute fictional constructs, scripts, or sets of make-believe ideas.

Let’s take a closer look at the description of the Hacienda Heights physician just offered:

The narrative offers no clue regarding his value system. It suggests a male gender, but could be hiding the reality that he was a female who underwent gender-reassignment surgery a few years ago. Latino, ok, but influenced by Mexican, Honduran, Spanish, or Costa Rica ancestry? What if one parent was of Hungarian descent?

You get the point.

Every identity, then, is always partial, incomplete.

It’s a form of acronym.

It’s also, mostly, a lie.

We create them out of found objects, cultural concepts embedded in the language we learn.

And, identity evolves.

The occupation, Chief Technology Officer, did not exist a half-century ago. Now most people understand what it means.

More importantly, we exist as human beings.

We are verbs, not nouns.

This results in the alienation identified by existentialists like Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre.

Why alienation?

Because as you sit here reading this post, you’re engaged in an intentional activity. And, if you bring your awareness to the fact that you’re reading, right now, the “fact” of you having been reading is already past.

Also, if you’re creating a Match.com profile this afternoon, the words you’ll use to describe yourself—kind, intellectual, fun-seeking, desiring a stable relationship—bear little resemblance, well…


We are unfolding.

These ideas bring to mind the unbridgeable gap between the objective and the subjective.

One psychoanalyst wrote, for example, that there will be an increased understanding of the neuro-physiology of memory, but there will be no equation or chemical formulation of MY memory.

In other words, neuroscientists work arduously to capture how you attend to these words, what memories they stimulate, and what mood they elicit.

If you turn away from the page for a second, look to your right, take a deep breath and then remember what you just read, then where does that memory live?

Many argue, and I concur, that memory lives in the individual phenomenal experience of the unfolding self.

It cannot be captured, measured, or weighed.

Neuroscientists won’t be able to find it.

It’s a memory retrievable only by you.

A gap always exists between your experiencing any moment—


and your recollection of it.

Even if elicited by another person, as in, “remember when we used to drive to the beach when we were in high school?”, the memory is uniquely YOURS.

Should we be surprised at such an irreconcilable paradox?


Contemporary physics has yet to determine the fundamental unit of matter in the universe.

The field does not know whether light is a particle or a wave.

It uses irreconcilable means of measurement, e.g. Newtonian concepts versus Einstein’s relativity theory, to study physical phenomena.

Contemporary biology remains stymied by the many factors contributing to development beyond genes. Some hoped that initial strain of information would explain everything, but it does not.

And so the endless mysteries of life march on.

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