Identity: Ties And Weddings
“Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.” – Henry David Thoreau
Identity is the cornerstone of a meaningful life, I believe, I have fought all of my life – every day, I think – to discover my identity, accept it, nourish and protect it. Lately, I find myself defending it more and more.
I have come to understand that in our inter-connected and increasingly fearful world, it is my identity that is threatened more than any other thing in my life. They can take almost anything from you, and you can lose almost everything you have. But not your identity is my soul and my foundation. It is my garden. Every day, I have to respect it, water and rake it, assert it, define it and stand behind it. Identity is a sacred thing for me. What is more important than knowing who I am and standing in my truth?
It took me so long to find my identity. All of my life, I have found, people – my parents, teachers, bosses, readers, – have been telling me who I am, what to do, what to think, what to say. I think it was only a few years ago, perhaps even a few months ago, that I began to understand the sanctity of identity and the need protect it, to keep it intact. Identity is my soul, my footprint, my mark on the world. It is the very definition of strength. Women know this, some men know it, artists know it, so do writers or anyone who lives through their voice and spirit.
And there is perhaps no greater threat to identity in our modern world than fear, righteousness and invasive new technologies that make it possible for almost everyone in the world to tell others what to do, and that they have the right to do so. New messaging systems and social media, which gives everyone in the world a chance to challenge identity with the stroke of a keyboard. Boundaries are overrun, so is civility and common sense and simple manners. I am glad my grandmother taught me that it is rude to tell other people what to do, and arrogant. I was never a great learner, but that lesson stuck.
I am astonished at the number of people who insist on trying to tell me what to do, who think that Facebook or Twitter or e-mail gives them the right and obligation. It has helped me understand identity and made mine stronger.
I've been writing about my daughter's upcoming wedding this weekend and have mentioned the fact that there is something of a dress code, and jeans are not permitted. Ties are requested, but optional. Every man but me will perhaps be wearing one, I was told, but that if that didn't bother me, it was fine. It will not bother me, I have never been cursed with the need for other people's agreement or approval.
And I will not wear a tie. I told my daughter that ties had special significance for me. I burned all of mine in a joyous bonfire and that day began my hero journey, my transition from one life to another, to the life of a writer and creative, to my move upstate, to my blog, to nature, a spiritual life, my books and animals, to Maria, the life of the farm. My identity. When I burned my ties, I began to find myself, my place in the world. It was a long road, a hard one, I am still on it. I will never toss it away for a tie.
This has annoyed some people, I see, they think I am being selfish and self-centered. Right away, there was a small but intense stream of messages scolding me for not wearing a tie, telling me in no uncertain terms that it was Emma's wedding, if she told me to wear a Santa suit, I should do it, this would be a great gift to her. Some of the notes were nice, some were not. This morning, I got an e-mail in that vein – a nice one – from someone who likes me and my work, who summers at a lake in the Adirondacks, but then added:
"I think you are amazing, but one thing I read today I disagree with – and that concerns no tie no way!!! It is my opinion that this is your only daughter, and this is her wedding, and if she asked you to wear a ballgown you should do it – with a smile on your face!!!!"
I did not recall asking her for her opinion or needing or wanting it. What is it about our new world that treats identity so casually and values it so little?
This idea that it is loving and selfless to submerge one's own identity in the rituals of others and consider that a gift struck me as worth discussing. Is it really a gift for my daughter to believe that my own values are not important to me, and can be trivialized and dismissed by a dress code? Obviously, it is not about a tie, I could care less about clothes, it drives my wife crazy how little I care about what I put on each morning. My daughter, bless her soul, said it was fine with her if I didn't wear a tie. She is perhaps the last person on the earth who would let anyone – me included – tell her what to do. She cherishes her own identity and would not take it from anyone else.
Honestly, I bear no ill will to these enemies of my identity, they mean me no harm. I imagine them to be people who expected to be told what to do, and who believe it is a gift to others to submerge their identity when asked, rather than to assert and affirm it. The Internet has caused them to forget their manners, and forget the boundaries that mark individuality and free thought. They have lost the old and widely held belief that each life is precious and different and individual, there is no one way to think or talk or write or live or go to a wedding. We each must find our own way in the world. That is what identity is.
And that minding one's own business unless invited to do otherwise is a covenant among people that is worth preserving, for farmers with animals as well as people going to weddings.
Maria thought it was fine for me not to wear a tie, and understood it. Unlike the people sending me messages, she knows me. So does Emma, who perhaps has more vivid memories than I do about our lives when I was wearing ties for other people. The identity thieves dismissed my feelings as the foolish vanities of just another selfish man. But we are all mirrors of one another, we see what we need to see. Another challenge to identity, like women being told they had to wear hose and high heels to work.
Identity suffers when total strangers decide it is okay for them to tell me what to wear, to criticize me for being willful and selfish, and to submerge my own strong feelings and emotions with a fake smile on my face.
But the truth is I wouldn't have a smile on my face if I went to the store and ordered one of those awful ties, a symbol of bondage to me, an enslaved and loveless life for me, the worst memories of my life. I speak only for me, I have many wonderful friends who wear ties and love their lives, and good for them.
My real life – my real identity – began when I burned my ties in a backyard in New Jersey. Would I really be doing my daughter a favor carrying that resentment and memory into her wedding? She understood that, so does my wife. So do I. Isn't that enough, isn't that something to be respected and understood, a boundary not to be crossed? On Saturday, I will have a smile on my face, not because of what I am wearing, but because my daughter is marrying a nice and loving man and she is happier than I have ever seen her. Not because of what people are wearing, but because of what is in her heart. I can hardly imagine a better or more fitting message for her on that day.
I understand that these challenges to identity are a great gift to me, as puzzling and annoying as they can be. Social media brings good and bad things, as all technology does. I think one reason my sense of myself has grown stronger in recent years is the almost daily challenge to my identity, this great pressure to make my own decisions and define and defend them, as Thoreau urged and preached and lived. I know the people telling me what to do mean no harm, but if you look around you, you may see, as I do, that identity is under siege everywhere, so many people are struggling to find theirs.
I prefer Thoreau's message. That is my identity. Say what you have to say and wear what you have to wear, not what you ought to say and ought to wear. Any truth is better than make-believe, any affirmation of self is better than any submission or subjugation. I am grateful that poor Thoreau didn't have e-mail or live in the age of Facebook, he would never have gotten out of Walden Pond alive, he would never have lived to write his books.