Freedom and Identity

I’ve been sick this past week.  Pretty sick actually – I haven’t been this sick in a long time.  My throat was badly swollen and inflamed, so I couldn’t really eat anything, and I was weak and achy.  I had a consistent fever for several days. When I have a fever, it seems every time I drift off to sleep I end up in a repeating loop of a dream just strange and uncomfortable enough to shake me back to consciousness.  

It seems every time I get sick enough to be significantly inconvenienced, I get a little starry eyed and philosophical.  I think that’s because it’s such a forced change in perspective – one day, I am my normal self: my body is functioning “properly”, or at least as I’ve grown accustomed to it functioning.  I can sleep, I can eat, I can run or ride a bike,  I can work and concentrate for extended periods of time.  The next day, without warning or reason, I can’t sleep. I can’t eat, so I’m weak all the time.  I can’t walk up the stairs without feeling dizzy and out of breath.  Lack of sleep has left my thoughts disjointed, sometimes incoherent.

The difference in my abilities between the two days is stark, and out of my control.

We’ve all got identities that we associate with, that we lovingly (or not-so-lovingly) craft, massage, and develop over years.  We use these identities as a narrative to describe who we are, or maybe who we want to be, or maybe who we’re afraid we are.  I think most people hold this internal narrative dearly.  I do.

My identity has a lot to say about me physically being a person who enjoys running, hiking, mountain biking, skiing.  Being in reasonably good physical shape.  Walking for no other purpose than to walk. 

Mental ability and attitudes might be even more important to my identity.  I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person.  I think of myself as a problem solver, who can, with the right time and motivation, understand the roots of a problem, and suggest a solution.  I think of myself as self reliant.

Other people might particularly value being a hard worker, being honest, being family oriented, being reliable, being a good friend.  Being committed to a cause or an ideal.

Now I have to get into freedom for a bit to attempt to tie this all together.  It seems important to us to be able to choose the tenets of our identities personally, individually.  “Follow your heart”.  “Be Yourself”.  “Follow your dreams”. 

We put a lot of weight on the individuality of each of our identities, and that individuality can only come via the distinctly individual freedom to choose the pillars of those identities.  The way a person views himself, the parts of him he chooses to deem exemplary or important are meaningful.

Getting sick unveils a problem that I may know rationally, but don’t often have to face directly:  All of the points of my (non-exhaustive) list of self identity tenets can be taken from me, as is so neatly demonstrated when I’m sick.  I can’t run.  I can’t hike, I can’t go on long walks.  I can’t really even think straight.  I can’t pay much attention to my kids, or enjoy spending time with them, at least not in the ways that I’m familiar with.

Of course, my sickness was temporary, and I’m feeling better already – tomorrow, I’ll likely be back to normal, and it will feel great, and I’ll go back to enjoying exercising the muscles of what makes me “me”.  But we might consider this just a lucky break.  Tomorrow I could be hit by a car, and have a broken hip never heal quite right.  I could end up with an infection that results in losing a limb. I could become paralyzed from the neck down.  It’s easy to identify the many ways that the physical traits I hold dear to who I am as a person might be lost.

Illness and exhaustion can change my willingness to use mental energy where I don’t absolutely have to.  Chronic illness could do this in a way that never ends, never gets better. Neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s can alter my ability to think and remember.  Even my mind, my thoughts, my personality, aren’t safe, aren’t static, and can be taken.

All of these things can happen without warning, and without my control – I cannot take steps to absolutely prevent events that will take away one or all of the tenets of my self identity, but leave me, mercilessly, living. 

We do not have complete freedom to choose the pillars of our identities, we’re choosing from a select subset of possibilities that we happen to be attainable based on our life circumstances.  This set of possibilities changes as life goes on – items can go off the list (as we get older, we’re less likely to be capable of significant athletic pursuit), and items can come onto the list (we learn new things, we come into money, we evolve as people).

So the nice thing about a particularly obnoxious bout with strep throat is, I suppose,  the opportunity to be reminded of who you think you are, and how little freedom you have to choose to be that person permanently.


People employed in tech have come to rely on an idea:  Everything can be measured.  Every interaction a user has with a website or application we’ve built – where their cursor goes, how long they last on any given page.  It can all be measured, it can all be tested and compared.

Countless consultants, technologies, entire businesses have sprung up to facilitate the aggregate measure and analysis of this kind of data.  How do users respond to a slight change in verbiage?  Will users react favorably if we change the order of a checkout flow? Does the color of this button matter?

With enough data, with enough users, with enough measured interactions, the shape that materializes is seems to be the average customer, user, human.  The context is often pretty narrow (“How does the average human visiting my site behave?”), but still – people are tirelessly working to distill broad, generic, useful insights into how the average human thinks and behaves from the specific actions of huge swaths of people.

Growing up, I’d classify someone as “eccentric” as a way to put a friendly spin on reality, which is that I thought they were so odd as to deserve to be identified, categorized, as something distinct – outside of the circle of “acceptable social acquaintance”.  I’d willingly interact with them, even be a friend, but all this was done in spite of said eccentricity, certainly not because of it.

People who dressed a little weird – not in a way that demanded attention, just off.  Or who were a little too into something.  Maybe a sport.  Maybe religion.  Or who couldn’t quite get what was acceptable to like, to dislike.

As an adult, I find myself characterizing it by anything that raises an eyebrow.  Or maybe anything that elicits a reaction – a reaction like “That seems like a waste of [time|money|effort]”.  “That seems silly”.  “I can’t believe they did that”. 

I can’t help to start to overlay the same types of big data aggregate analyses onto real life people, people I see and interact with every day.  Why we wear what we wear (shoes!), why we eat what we eat, read what we read, what we choose to spend money, time, and effort on.  How much of what makes me me is really just manifestation of the average human in my demographic?

Against that background, it feels like the only thing that differentiates, that matters in identifying who a person is is where they deviate from the norm.  The scenarios in which one person clicks a link  but very few others do.  Maybe a person’s eccentricities – the collection of behaviors, actions, reactions – which baffle or even concern their peers and acquaintances, are actually the most meaningful things about them.

Most of us manage to fit the norm most of the time – either because we just do naturally, or because where we don’t, we’re trained to avoid sticking out.  As a result, the eccentricities – the rough edges, the pieces that don’t fit – can be identified as being somehow so deeply ingrained in us that we can’t smooth them out, or because we care about them so deeply that we’d prefer to leave them as they are.

And that’s interesting.  That’s all.