Who am I?

I read and think quite a lot about identity but am not sure if I have posted much here: if I have then my tags have been pretty useless!

What turns us from the bundle of common cells into the unique and precious individual each of us is today?

We know there is a range of influences on us from before birth and throughout our lives. At times it seems we have to fight against some kind of Borg-like absorption into a single identity. "I am not a number! I am a free man!" Ironically our current culture (since 1950s McCarthyism as a minimum) is obsessed with the notion of individuality against the monolithic state/institution, which influences our own internal obsessions…and now is the time for me to mention the wonderful Little Brother. This may be the post I was trying to write back in the summer when I had a post in my head which couldn’t get past my fingertips to the keys.

Anyway…

As we can see from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, memory is what makes us people. If we cannot relate to others meaningfully and share a common history, I believe we cannot be fully human. So it follows that our past is crucial to making us the people we are. How we experienced life in the womb, birth and initial development, socialisation and independence impacts our individuality.

What affects me in various situations? Some of it is physical – what my mother ate while I was gestating, the air I breathe and the food I consume. Archaeologists can tell you where ancient bones grew through childhood by the effects of diet and air and water on teeth and skeletal remains, just as we can trace the history of trees through their rings (although these are generally less ambulatory at least until they get turned into ships or carts). however, much of our personality is likely to be affected by other people and the society around us. [See the current BBC-based experiment here.]

Childhood: mine was a pretty typical 1960s suburban experience. It was mostly happy, with the odd sadness. It involved two parents and a grandparent, although no siblings. There were friends, and freedoms disallowed today to children – although there were also restrictions which would not be acceptable any more, so perhaps the balance has not slipped all one way. Playing out in parks and by rivers against corporal punishment not only at home but also at school. Rigorous gender and class stratification. Mono-cultural assumptions.

I grew up listening to the new pop music – such as protest songs by Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and The Seekers – as well as the more respectable Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Val Doonican that my mother enjoyed. Around about the time I started forming my own opinion about music we got Motown, psychedelic rock, and then Queen, disco and punk. An eclectic mix. My first single was T.Rex and my first album was Simon and Garfunkel.

On TV children were sharing a much reduced choice of programming, at the same time more limiting and more community-building. Blue Peter or Magpie? That pretty much summed up the limits of opportunity – but we had so much in common as a result. A common language and a common view of the world. We may not have been as challenged by alternative views but we did build a pretty substantial sense of confidence and self.

Books were all pretty standard fare: Enid Blyton, Alan Garner, Ted Hughes, and classics such as Black Beauty, Robin Hood, King Arthur. We knew the stories from a shared history (Battle of Hastings, Julius Caesar, the Gunpowder Plot) which defined us all and didn’t admit to guilt or political convenience.

The Internet is wonderful, in my opinion. I potter on it happily for hours. From the early bulletin board systems (FidoNet!) to the current Web 2.0 (not 1.99 or 2.1 at all), and the future possibilities, it’s all a heady mix of opportunity and terror. Everyone will know everything about everybody – but I will be lost in the anonymous mass of humanity. Paranoia and a kind of shamelessness brought on by anonymity. What we make of our chances is what defines us.

I am a child of the Sixties – and I mean a child. I was too young to get into all that hippy stuff, except to watch from a distance and fall in love with Mary Hopkin (she was an angel come to earth). That music and style fills me with joy, not only for its cheery optimism, but also for the warm and cosy memories alongside dead bodies in Vietnam and students protesting on TV. These memories I share with many others my age – my generation. And as I grew to independence then it was the Seventies – power cuts, strikes, and Slade, Queen and the Stranglers. At university we had Thatcher, New Romantics and the miners’ strike; everything seemed more dangerous, either because the world was going to hell in a handcart or because we were growing up and actually understanding and interpreting it differently.

I find as I grow older I can be more fearful; I’m not sure if that is what is meant by experience, or just frailty. I want to celebrate all the things to come, and am sorry to think of the wonders I will not see.

I also find I am surer of my core being. And for that I am grateful.

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