The university library was abuzz with activity—as far as any library could ever be said to be abuzz. As always, silence permeated the halls, punctuated by small scattered groups of students talking in hushed tones. The colossal collection of professional publications, educational encyclopedias, and other miscellaneous tomes was ignored by the student body at large. Instead, the library was the prime hotspot for students seeking solitude to work on independent projects, along with groups looking for a neutral ground on which to collaborate.
Jamie and Chris sat in bean bag chairs in one small corner of the library. They had only been there for a couple minutes so far. “Identity?” Jamie asked. “That’s it?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “That’s all the email said. Just, ‘The essay topic is Identity.’” Everyone in the philosophy class had been waiting for the professor’s mass email revealing the subject of their next group essay. Now that the email had finally come, it was quickly becoming clear that interpreting it would be a task all on its own.
“Like, does he want a broad overview or something specific?” Jamie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s not something we’ve covered in class yet,” Jamie said. He sunk a few inches deeper into the bean bag chair.
“I know,” Chris said. He sounded like they had been through this already a dozen times. Knowing Chris, he probably felt like they actually had. “It could be that he wants us to relate the subjects we have gone over to the concept of identity as we currently understand it.”
Jamie nodded thoughtfully. The professor had done that to the class before, as a prelude to another unit of study. “Maybe. Or, maybe he wants us to come up with our own thesis relating to identity and prove or disprove it.” The professor had done that to them before too. “Why else would he be so vague?” He wants to see where we’ll go with as little guidance as possible.”
Chris sighed. “I wouldn’t put it past him. So… Where do we start? What interesting things can we say about identity?”
“We could write something about gender identity in the 21st century,” Jamie said. He was always eager to explore those kinds of progressive concepts. It was almost entertaining in its predictability.
“Or political identity, or religious,” Chris said. “I think we need to go deeper than that, somehow. To the very idea of identity itself.” You could always depend on Chris to go the abstract route. It made working with him interesting, albeit confusing most of the time. And challenging, if you ask me.
Jamie rolled his eyes. “If you want to turn yet another assignment into a grand metaphorical discourse, fine, but can we at least try to keep it simple this time? So I can still contribute?”
“Of course,” Chris said. “What about you, Riley? You haven’t said anything since you got here. Any ideas?”
It was about time they included me in the conversation. “I think a paper on the idea of identity could be good,” I said, “especially if the professor wants to test our knowledge of the subject before we cover it.”
“But then we need to figure out what identity is,” Jamie said. “Like, philosophically speaking.” He was right about that. We were setting ourselves up to have to recreate a major branch of philosophy from the ground up.
“Well then, let’s start from the beginning,” Chris said. “What does it mean to have an identity?” That was a very good question. We all stopped to think about it.
“It depends on what kind you mean,” I said. “Gender, religious, political, personal, social… There are a lot of them.”
“What do they have in common?” Chris asked.
“They make you who you are?” Jamie suggested.
“Those are all kinds of identities that people can have,” Chris said. “Can objects have identity too?”
I knew the answer was yes. There were also mathematical identities, like adding zero to a number to make it add up to itself again. I wondered just how deep Chris wanted to take this project.
“But more importantly,” Chris continued, “all those kinds of identities that people can have are, for the most part, kinds of identities that objects can’t have. Why not?”
Jamie sighed. I silently sympathized with him. We had both been waiting for the moment Chris would trip us up. As always, it came with no warning. And it made me think.
“Objects aren’t alive,” I said.
“Sponges are alive,” Chris said. “Do you think they have political identities?”
“Objects don’t have brains,” I adjusted my previous statement.
“Birds have brains. Do you think birds have religious identities?”
“Can we safely assume they don’t?”
“Probably not,” Chris said. “But you see my point? It’s not just being alive or having a brain that gives us the ability to have personal identities. It takes a certain kind of brain. It takes a mind. It takes consciousness, and self-awareness.”
I had to admit, I was intrigued by the direction this brainstorming session was going, although it might have been a little too tangential to base our essay around. It made sense to me that consciousness was necessary for personal identities to form. How else could they form if a mind wasn’t there to form them? “Is that our essay topic? That you can’t have personal identities without a mind?”
“Probably not,” Chris said. “But it’s something to think about.”
That was a frustrating, anticlimactic, and very Chris-like way to close the line of thought, but my mind lingered on it. Because that was my personality, I realized. One of my many kinds of identities. Yet overall, I was just one identity. One person with many facets. Everyone was like that. I was Riley Blake—I was human, sentient, and self-aware. I could perceive the world around me, and that perception fueled my many identities, my one identity that made me who I was. I was myself, and no one else would ever be me.
I understood my Identity.