I have written this essay multiple times: when I young, when I was 18, when I lived in the woods and again the other week. Quite frankly, I feel as though I write this in my mind every day. The reason for this essay struck me on the streets of Cambridge, Boston five months ago, where a homeless man sat on the street holding a cardboard sign that read:
I am ________. Help. Tell me who I am.
Was he asking for a name? A noun? How about an adjective? With this man’s compelling question, I had to stop and ask myself: Who am I? And so the hellacious mental journey began.
Subjectifying the complex and fascinating creatures that we all are makes no sense to me. People change and adapt — humans cannot be categorized. Maybe our peers don’t understand why we question ourselves, but it strikes me even more when our own minds can’t understand why these things happen. I learned a great deal of all this when I attended the New England Literature Program (aka NELP). Through this experience, I lived in the woods for six weeks with 52 other people, studying classic American literature and having no access to technology. I could not have found a better space to genuinely reflect on the person I was and the person I was about to become.
Identity has become my biggest mystery, as I am sure it has for others. If identity is this powerful, concrete possession that each of us hold so close and so gingerly, then how is it constantly changing?
We are always bending this valuable label. We change our hair style, gain new hobbies, receive nicknames, gain/lose weight, experience new places with fresh ideas, adapt to our environments and the people within them. Identity is not as permanent as we may think.
For all of time, we have categorized ourselves into specific groups: age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ability, sexuality, religion, etc. And as beneficial as these groups can be, I believe they create quite a bit of frustrations, restrictions and questions. A friend once told me, and I believe it to be true, is that who we are not is just as noticeable as who we are. And with that, these categories represent just the surface to this iceberg situation.
However, it was here where my community pulled out a side of me I never knew existed. I was cheery and giddy, quizzical and self-analytical. I was surprised at the multitudes of personality and happiness I had possessed. And when six weeks of explorative Erika came to an end, I was ejected back into reality. The reality of home (Philadelphia area) where people might give you a funny look because you open the door for them or cut you off on 95 because of their road rage. Positive, peaceful Erika soon turned back into negative, on edge Erika. I was a stranger in my own skin.
So I asked myself: Why is this happening to me? Code switching turns on and motives shift drastically when we fix ourselves in a new environment. My personality and identity clearly has no limits — it’s fluid. It adjusts as I move from place to place and live with one type of community to another. As much as I tried to fight this subconscious action, I was defeated and I now abide to it.
But, maybe this idea of a mold-less identity is not as scary as it seems. I find myself learning a great deal from these new situations I throw myself in. Whether that be living in the woods, living in Philly or living in Ann Arbor, I don’t have to be confined to the labels that others put on me and that I put on myself.
Because in the grand scheme of things, identity is not a product, it’s a process. One day, the future me might lose her love for sushi or The Vaccines or find that she belongs in the city more than she belongs in the woods (I truly hope none of those happen). Because who I am now will probably not be the same person in six weeks, six months or six years. With some friends I’m relaxed and timid, meanwhile with others, I’m like an overexcited molecule bouncing with excitement and spontaneity.
I do not believe we have to be the same person everywhere we go; however, it’s still so important to know where you came from, where you are and where you are going. All the Erikas I have ever been form the person I am today, and the person I am today will help form the Erika I become tomorrow and so on. I was raised on three religions; my socio-economic status has changed drastically through the years; I was once a blonde and am now a brunette. We physically, mentally and emotionally transform due to different factors.
Though we will shift, grow and conform to new sides of our identities, it does not mean we should lose touch with who we are. As harmful as labels have been on all of us, they are powerful and vital to most. Identity makes us original and gives us something to be proud about. Some labels are easier to erase than others, but even those labels should never fully define the in-depth creatures that we are.
So here I am, five months later, pondering the miniscule but mighty question that was written on that piece of cardboard. If I could go back in time, I would take the marker and fill in the blank with the words whoever I want to be and cross out the Help. Tell me who I am.
Maybe the homeless man would smile at my action or maybe he just wouldn’t care. But his sign would read I am whoever I want to be. For all the people who passed that sign and even those who have not, I hope they question and accept their idea of themselves just as I do every day.