By now, you’d think we’d have a pretty good idea who we are. I mean, we’ve been assessing and predicting things about each other since… well, a long time. And because each of us feels a pretty unbroken identity from when they were a child, it probably makes sense to assume others do as well. ‘I am that I am,’ is the transliteration of what the voice in the burning bush told Moses. Identity is fixed; it’s only the attributes that change… Or are they actually co-dependent?
Is there another way of assigning identity other than by characteristics, or traits? One obvious way is by appearance, of course, although that changes over time. So, what is the form of identity for which we are searching in, say, a long lost friend? What are the interpersonal interactions all about? What is it that makes her that same person you knew, even if she now seems… different? Imponderables all.
I began to wonder if the whole question of what I’ve relied on to determine a friend’s identity may be couched in my expectations -as if they were buried, somehow, in what their peculiarities had meant to me, and therefore, perhaps, in what I hoped to get out of the encounter. Who I, not they, in other words, had become.
Not certain if this was a helpful insight, I decided to keep an eye peeled for writings touching on the subject. An article, written by the journalist Carlin Flora, a former features editor at Psychology Today, but writing this time in the online publication, Aeon, seemed close: https://aeon.co/essays/are-novelists-or-psychologists-better-at-describing-people
Entitled ‘Indescribable You’ she asks ‘Can novelists or psychologists better capture the strange multitude of realities in every human self?’ She starts by quoting a paragraph of an author describing some of the attributes of a character in his novel which ‘touches upon [her] looks, social class, psychology and behaviours. It’s hard to imagine a better description, and it’s certainly superior to what people provide to each other conversationally or on dating websites. And yet, any particular reader will project his or her own stored images, memories and worldview upon [her]… we’re constantly describing ourselves and others.’
But, ‘Writers search for emotional granularity, consequential details and apt metaphors, while sociologists and personality psychologists have come up with sorting tools such as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness… But across time and contexts, any of these characteristics can change… A million tiny human factors – tone of voice, brand of shoes, frequency of smiles – form a gestalt as difficult to pick apart as it is to pin down. If a person contains multitudes and is perhaps even infinite, how can we compare infinities? … This fluid state of affairs is often captured best by writers, who tend to have an agenda when delineating characters.’
Indeed, ‘Novelists know that behaviour is always more revelatory than a grocery list of traits… writers often expose not the ‘truth’ about someone, but rather the gaping distance between how they see themselves and how others view them.’
We seldom have omniscience, however: what we experience, is what we get, and any analysis is, by necessity, only temporary. Even if we have used the ‘Big Five’ personality traits in an attempt to categorize their tendencies, as Flora writes, ‘Tendencies, while real, are not as revealing as countertrends: a friend is an extravert, except when she’s with her colleagues. A daughter is agreeable at school, but pretty cranky at home.’ We are all contextually fluid in other words, and our -and their- personalities, quirks, and preferences are all bundled together.
This was on my mind when I saw her: the short thin woman apparently holding court with a friend in the middle of the Food Area of a large shopping mall. With her shock of fluffy red hair, and gesticulating arms it was typical Jane. If there were people around, she’d find a table somewhere amongst them, hoping for inquisitive glances that she could return with interest.
She had always been like that -all through university, at any rate. But I hadn’t seen her since graduation. We were frequent lab-partners in our biology classes because our last names both started with the same letter. Even when we first met, it was as if I’d known her for years -and since I hadn’t, there was a lot of ground for her to cover. Her curiosity was insatiable, both about me, and about whatever classes we shared.
I remember the time of our first assignment, when I found it difficult to risk dissecting the long-dead-and-pickled Taenia solium (pig tapeworm). I tried, unsuccessfully, to hide behind my eyes I think, but she just laughed, picked it up with her bare hands, and pointed out its frightening scolex through a magnifying glass she’d brought for the occasion. Jane was like that.
She was always a pleasure to be with, even if I didn’t want to talk. And if I didn’t ask her a question about something, she’d answer as if I’d meant to ask -always with a warm smile that threatened to break into a laugh if she caught me staring at her.
We both enjoyed each other’s company, so I’m not sure why we lost track of each other, but I imagine my being shy didn’t help. And then, of course, our career paths diverged and, well, new memories greeted us both.
And yet I never forgot her, so when I saw her unmistakable hairdo even from across the Food Court, I knew I had to say hello. I waited until her friend left to pick up their orders, and decided to walk over and say hello.
“Hi,” I managed to rasp, feeling dizzy because my heart was pounding so fast.
She looked up from her coffee with a start, and managed an embryonic smile for me. “Hi,” she answered, warily, and stared at me for a moment.
There was an awkward silence.
“I… I’m G,” I stammered, using the nickname she’d always called me. “Biology at McMaster…?”
The smile never left her lips, but her eyes scanned my face as if it contained a barcode somewhere that might help.
There was no question in my mind that it was Jane. She had the same olive-green eyes, the same slightly lob-sided grin she had always unleashed whenever she was puzzled in Biology class. “We were lab partners, in Biology… maybe nine or ten years ago…” I explained to the still baffled face
But, except for the little grin, her face remained a blank slate, and her eyes continued to sample my expression, hoping for a clue. Suddenly, they stopped, mid-scan and seemed to fixate on my hair. It was always bursting with unruly curls that I’d never been able to tame.
“Oh, yes… Now I remember you,” she said slowly, and a little uncertainly for my liking. “Didn’t you have trouble with a tapeworm or something…?”
I nodded hopefully.
“It’s nice seeing you again,” she added, obviously pleased with herself for remembering, even though her voice didn’t seem that happy I’d suddenly re-appeared in her life.
The painful silence returned and obviously neither of us could think of anything more to say. The thousand questions that had been bubbling through my mind seemed suddenly inappropriate. Things had changed.
I suppose time does that, though…