The Fluidity of Identity

Mikki Morrissette (photo by Sarah Whiting)

My father, in his later stage of dementia, remembers fragments of facts about his life and what defined him. He also confesses that he sometimes feels like “nothing” as he gradually loses his sense of “I.” This transitioning in our family’s life has me thinking about the time we each spend creating identities that are based on details and labels — on how we define ourselves in each other’s eyes, and on what we “know.” Yet, the way people relate to each other transcends mere labels. 

In a class by an Ojibwe linguist, I was introduced to the Native concept of Seven Generations — that we are all related to everything that comes before and everything that comes after.

I also was in a conversation circle recently in which we talked about our propensity to see our personal identities as separate from the whole. Society might be less traumatized if we recognized all life as part of an ongoing movement, like schools of fish, or the murmurations of starlings.

This is how I consider my father’s identity. Not the data he remembers about his life, but as an individual in the fluid, evolving, relational collective — impacting those in our family, to the woman he helped become a naturalized U.S. citizen, to everyone in between.

Our Digital Code 

I believe our propensity to separate ourselves as individuals not in a collective might be related to the instinct to see things in binary code. We tend to have a mindset that there are two paths: right/wrong, progressive/conservative, us/them, love/fear, male/female.

It is a simpler way to navigate a multi-dimensional world that has many gradations and perspectives. Using a binary code can allow us to categorize people as quickly as a computer with 0/1 digital coding. It can help us move through our day efficiently and — in our most vulnerable identity-seeking stages — figure out where we might belong.

What we don’t often talk about is that labeling is simply a way for our brains to sort. It is not real.

Putting someone in a category makes a snap judgment as if we are no more than a bit in binary code.