The ‘proper’ basis for the personal identity of any given human is a hard thing to derive… if you’re limited to the tools of, say, science. Science wonderfully (and tragically in the case of murder, hate, discrimination, etc.) describes what humans ‘do’ (human doings), but not what/who humans ‘are’ (human beings).
I’d want to affirm that ‘doing’ (as well as ‘knowing’ and ‘feeling’) is a necessary component of what a human ‘being’ is, but not the whole composition. Any identity based on only feelings, actions and intelligence alone is incomplete and leaves out something.
The most unchallenged (and to me, baffling) kind of identity I know of, is ‘sexual’ identity (hetero, homo, pan, omni, etc.). I once moderated an inter-faith discussion about ‘tolerance’ in which a person (who acknowledged their sexual identity) stated their wish not to merely be ‘tolerated’, but to be accepted for who he was. A few thoughts:
- Sexual desire seems to be quite malleable/impermanent or otherwise inappropriate for identity. Whilst some attempts at therapeutic (including – yes – electric shock ‘therapy’!) ‘adjustment’ of sexual desire are contrived at best (and abusive at worst), it remains true that (as the old adage says) “the greatest sex organ is the mind”, which (neuro-plasticity confirming what we already knew from experience) can undergo remarkable change.
- Most (all?) have more than one sexual desire. Both nature and nurture (genes/’memes’ if you like) combine to give us not a single sexual desire for ‘this’ sexual experience, but a range/variety of sexual desires, so identifying as ‘x’ (i.e. homo/hetero) fails to account for the other desires present (i.e. – Kinsey’s hyper-controversial research would seem to indicate that few if any people occupy only one precise ‘point’ on the ‘orientation scale’). Perhaps this relates to some opting for the less-defined ‘bi’-sexual, or ‘pan’/’omni’-sexual identities.
- Sexual desire (particularly desire for sexual encounter with another human) is not always met. For a variety of reasons (including physical disability, repulsion by other, unwillingness to force the other person, cultural/traditional/ideological pressures), many people go through life and manage not to have sex with another person. Of particular concern here is the confused/contradictory influences present in many/most cultures presenting sex as something ‘everyone’ does. Leaving those who are not (or not yet) sexually active being/feeling less than normal. Is a fire-fighter who never fights fires really a fire-fighter? Who wants to be normal in principle? [updated thought at bottom of post]
Where, then, is a ‘safe’ or ‘responsible’ place in which to find our identity? Especially in a world where everything (desires, opportunities, bodily function, etc.) seems impermanent?
The Judaeo-Christian tradition answers: in relationships. Even a non-theistic psychotherapist or counsellor could reasonably say the same: in our relationship to ‘others’ (albeit without including the supreme ‘Other’).
It seems to me, as a Christian, there are two broad categories of relationships (Creator/creation), which break down into three (Creator, human creation, non-human creation), which admit of a fourth distinction as well: Creator, other humans, self, non-human creation (or God, others, self, world). Some thoughts:
- Creator. Even the most tentative of theistic understandings realise the fundamental identity-forming dependence upon the Source of all being/existence.
- Others. Other humans are like mirrors. The opinions and influence of others shape our self-understanding. We don’t truly know who we are apart from the ‘other’. Our identity is formed in relationship to our brothers, sons, daughters, partners, granddaughters, aunts and husbands.
- Self. Indeed, personal identity wouldn’t be ‘personal’ (and thus not ‘identity’) if we didn’t distinguish between ‘other’ and ‘self’. We are unique and particular, not an identity-less component of some all-encompassing mass-consciousness.
- World. We have an identity-forming awareness of our affect on our environment. We can utterly wreck the place, or we can beautify and enhance it. We are care-takers, janitors, renovators, zookeepers and stewards of the world we inhabit.
[updated thought: Not only is it true that our sexual (erotic, that is) desires are not unfailingly met, but it’s also true and relevant that our deepest and truest desire is for intimacy, and this is a desire that must be met. Whatever the gender or physiology of any given two persons, they are created for inter-personal – and thus genuinely/truly ‘sexual’ – intimacy. It seems to me that, last I checked, same-sexed persons lack the physiology to engage in coitus/intercourse/’sex’, and thus (physiologically speaking) cannot have a ‘sexual’ relationship – but they can still be genuinely intimate, as any two good friends would be. And this is not only ‘acceptable’, but what all humans want and need.]