I had taken ‘identity’ for granted growing up in America. Everyone was searching for their ‘identity’ — the truth of who they were. That included racial identity, career identity and sexual identity, to name a few. How one felt about oneself and how one chose to express how one felt about oneself was to be respected as an individual right and choice.
And as the choice of ‘identity’ shifted — which could happen overnight, one’s style shifted with it — like the change of costumes, in the way that one spoke, dressed and what kind of haircut and glasses one wore, as if one were the ‘actor’ tentatively acting out the current ‘role’ that could be easily shed and replaced at anytime.
But recently, I became skeptical about the concept of 'identity' itself. It was when I couldn’t resolve my career identity, after having abruptly left music at the age of nineteen and given up my aspiration of becoming a concert pianist. I moved from music to academia to design, desperately searching for another passion that could be my profession, but not finding what felt true to myself. I was on the verge of conceding to my musician friend’s warning when I left music: ’You will come back to music, because you will never find another passion you love as much.’
Of course, my identity as a musician had become amplified upon immigration to America, as music became an alternative realm of belonging from a race-based identity, which seemed to be the only realm that I could belong in the homogeneous setting of the New Jersey suburbs. And at university, it became a choice between race-based identities and interest-based identities, among which I, again, chose music. Clinging to my identity as a musician perhaps was my attempt at rejecting race-based identities, except that a classical musician in America was inseparably linked to the stereotype of being Asian.
I realized that the problem with my career identity was not that I didn't find the right career for myself, but that I was trying to find my ‘sense of self’ through my career identity. Erich Fromm in The Sane Society observed the following:
'Many substitutes for a truly individual sense of identity were sought for, and found. Nation, religion, class and occupation serve to furnish a sense of identity. ‘I’m an American,’ ‘I am a Protestant,’ ‘I am a businessman,’ are the formulae which help a man experience a sense of identity after the original clan identity has disappeared and before a truly individual sense of identity has been acquired.'
Rather than ‘identity’ serving the purpose of ‘expressing’ and ‘asserting’ the truth of who we are, what identity did was to alienate us farther from the truth of who we are, while trying on one costume after another to see which one fit us best.
I thought the obsession with identity was a distinctively American phenomenon, but as it turned out, one’s attempt at trying to find a sense of self through one of the identities out there was present everywhere across the humanity.
Fromm goes on to observe:
'The problem of the sense of identity is not, as it is usually understood, merely a philosophical problem, or a problem only concerning our mind and thought. The need to feel a sense of identity stems from the very condition of human existence, and it is the source of the most intense strivings. I am driven to do almost anything to acquire this sense even though it is an illusory one…Instead of the pre-individualistic clan identity, a new herd identity develops, in which the sense of identity rests on the sense of an unquestionable belonging to the crowd. That this uniformity and conformity are often not recognized as such, and are covered by the illusion of individuality.'
If European tribalism expressed itself in the form of defending its national and cultural identity — its ‘clan identity’ as a direct extension of one’s biological self and resistance to its shift, then American tribalism expressed itself in the form of — ‘new herd identities’ such as race-based identities, 'Republican' vs. ‘Democrat,' or 'conservative' vs. ‘liberal.'
What then was a true sense of self, if not derived from group identities?
As it turned out, a true sense of self was something that one already had inside of oneself, rather than something to be found in one of the ‘identities’ out there.
As Eckhart Tolle observes in his Pure Awareness Meditation: ‘The answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ is not to be found in thought or in words, but in the presence that you sense, you sense yourself as the presence,' which he calls the 'formless' dimension. He adds in his book A New Earth, ‘As the new consciousness emerges…individuals no longer look to any form to define who they are.’
It meant that a society could only progress beyond tribalism, when individuals stopped seeking their sense of self through one of the ‘form identities’ out there, where it could not be found, but instead turned inward to connect with one's intrinsic sense of self. It also meant that only then, individuals would be able to connect with others on a deeper level, beyond the surface level of clan identity and new herd identities.