Pattern #14

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Complex Identity

Credits: Book: nuttakit – Shutterstock /  Face: Lia Koltyrina – Shutterstock / Relig. Symbols: Abscent – Shutterstock

Any entity — person, group, idea, system, etc. — can be known through its essence, character, stories, boundaries, fruits, relationships, infinitude, and more. In and around every entity these dimensions coexist and coevolve. Much is lost through oversimplification. So honor, support, explore and engage many dimensions of everyone and everything.

Some questions for exploring this pattern:

  • How many dimensions of yourself and/or other people can you sense or identify? Which of those do you really think need to be taken into account, appreciated, or consulted? Why?
  • How may qualities and/or functions can you come up with for a given object in (y)our environment?
  • To what extent – and in what ways – can a person’s or object’s or idea’s connections (to other people, things, ideas, etc.) increase their value to us, individually and collectively? How does that work?
  • What would it mean to appreciate that? How can we actually use that? can we feel how it is true for ourselves? How many connections can we think of that influence who we are and what we do and could do?
  • How do you think about your essence, or the essence of other people, or the essence of a book or group or society?
  • What does this pattern mean for how we work for a better society?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

Let’s consider a person – let’s say, you, for example. Let’s imagine you and think about what you consider to be your “essence”. That might be some quality that you have that you think really identifies you, when people who know you recognize when you feel they know you. What is that thing that they know? Or you may think of your soul or spirit as your essence. There’s all sorts of things that could be considered the essential you. Whatever it is, it’s something that you yourself could know more about and/or that others could know more – or less – about.

And then there’s your character: you have certain qualities, ways you behave, characteristics like your hair color, or the way you greet people, or the kinds of foods you like. All these are characteristics of you. So they’re all part of your identity, too.

And then there are boundaries, like the boundaries of your skin and your body. It is now known that chemicals, air and liquids are moving in and out of your body all the time – in many ways you often don’t even realize – but you still feel your bodily boundaries. And there’s also your personal boundaries – how close you are willing to have different kinds of people be in various circumstances. And then there’s the boundaries of your property. You have a “boundedness” and people and other entities come and go across those boundaries. And all of that is part of who you are.

And what are your fruits? Not just the things that you produce in your work but do people feel good or bad when they’re around you? Those are also fruits of who you are. And you are breathing out carbon dioxide that the plants and trees are breathing in. There’s all sorts of products that are part of who you are and how the rest of life sees you and relates to you.

Of course, we can consider all your relationships – your family, your friends, your networks, your work associates, and so on. There’s a personality test called the Berkeley Personality Profile. When you answer the questions yourself, it gives you a general profile. But then can get more specific: you can imagine yourself at work and do the test with that in mind. You can imagine yourself having dinner with your family and do the test with that in mind. And so on. And you find there are threads of who you are that are consistent through all of these different contexts you’re thinking of. You’re different with your boss than you are with your partner or your sweetheart or your children or whatever. And you can go further with it: you can give the test to your partner or your wife or husband and say “Take this ABOUT me. How would you answer these questions ABOUT me?” Give it to your kids. Give it to people you work with. Give it to people you hang out and have a beer with. And among the results, you find commonalities and differences. So you may ask “Who AM I?” when, in fact, you’re ALL of those things. The way you are in relationships, the way people are with you – all the connections are part of the full picture of who you are.

A Native American person, when they’re asked to introduce themselves, will often stand up and talk about all their relations and that includes the people in their extended family, and it includes the animals, trees and mountains in their place. It’s like they’re embedded in relationship – and they are very aware of it and see that living web as who they ARE.

And there are both spiritual and scientific ways to describe how you are infinite. There is a very interesting book by Alan Watts called “The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you really are”. It goes about scientifically and philosophically proving to you that you are God, that you are the universe, that you are everything – and then it undoes all that in an interesting way (I won’t tell you the secret!). He’s tackling the infinitude dimension of us, for us.

So now that we’ve gone over a whole set of the complexities of who YOU are, think about your neighbor. Think about the person who lives next door. You may know them or you may not know them, particularly. But they are as complex as you are, in the senses we’ve been talking about. And that’s true of all the thousands of people you see around you every day.

So there’s a lot going on there and it is important and humbling to understand that we don’t know all that, all the time. And we don’t HAVE to know all that all the time. But we should at least honor that that fact exists – that that complexity exists – and support people in manifesting more of who they are, rather than trying to say “you are a consumer” or “you are a doctor” or “you are whatever your role might be” or “you are Republican” or whatever.

It is radically oversimplifying for someone to put you in a box and leave it at that. To think that’s really who you are is to miss massive amounts of resources and wisdom about relationship, about the roles you could take. Once you start finding out the magnitude and details of who people are, you have an opportunity to weave that into larger patterns together.

This is particularly germane when we think of the prime directive of the pattern language, which is to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole. So when we have people and we think of the “whole person” and start to delve into all the knowledge, all the understanding, all the capabilities, the dreams, needs, whatever…. When we start to access all of that about a person, there’s tremendous amounts of material to work with – and for people, together, to work with about themselves – collectively and individually and in relationship and sharing and all that.

That’s part of the implications of this Complex Identity pattern. It gives you tremendous amounts of material to work with when you’re trying to manifest the prime directive.

And we can do the same exercise with holism or socialism or democracy or any other system or idea. We can consider what is its essence? What is the essence of democracy? Some people say it’s essence is voting. And I go “I don’t think so! I think its essence is we are together co-creating our collective lives – and voting is one way to do that.” Representation is one way to do that. Collective deliberation is another way to do that. All these different ways exist to do democracy. So there’s lots of different essences to democracy, different character to democracy, different boundaries (what goes beyond the boundaries of democracy?)…. What are the fruits of democracy, the good and bad things about democracy, it’s relationship to other forms of governance. We could even explore its infinitude. There’s a way that we could say “We are all co-creating everything all the time anyway – even if our political system doesn’t reflect that!”

I’m just looking at the pattern heart and seeing what it covers, and exploring how to honor that in people, how to honor that in ideas, how to honor that in systems, how to support that complexity being able to be present in our midst – how to explore it, how to engage different dimensions of it for the long-term benefit of all life. That’s the real meaning behind this Complex Identity pattern.

Video Introduction (11 min)

Examples and Resources