Questions of Identity

Schools fail us by teaching students how to work with knowledge rather than how to deal with ignorance, not be a sucker with the unknown.

Nassim Taleb

This neither begins nor ends with schools. In a time when the most popular public stance is to celebrate our fears and idolize those who act on them this mechanism points to a potential root cause. At least a factor in the perpetuation and escalation of a civilization founded on fear.

Why chase after power?

Fear, ultimately.

Animate this process, feel how it works. Fear arises when an equilibrium is disturbed. Turning to power to solve the problem exacerbates our loss of balance. A momentary disequilibrium becomes a chronic state. Anxiety takes hold and our fears no longer need an anchor in actual circumstances. Power keeps promising and failing to deliver. Our state of imbalance deepens and broadens to fill our horizons.

Where does this syndrome lodge within us?

What if we look at our notions of identity?

The Quietest Voice in the Room

It’s all there in the story of Queequeg’s Coffin. Its origins in the Theosphere. It carries Art in its fabric. It’s purpose is useful and it is built to the highest standards of Craft. Its integrity results from a coherent attitude towards Quality. Its vision brings the ship’s carpenter into its circle and he rises to its challenge hewing it of wood.

This is what made it an object capable of crossing boundaries. Able to persist as a result of its inherent buoyancy. What allows it to present itself within an entirely alien circumstance. Just what is needed.

Faith derailed becomes fossilized as belief. Belief brings stability by promising a purchase on power. This stability AND the machinations of power together can only erode and destroy vitality. The lock between them insures that their effects are persistent and so pernicious. This stability takes us far into overshoot.

At the base of this edifice is a belief in power supplanting faith in strength. So long as this persists no facts will lead a believer to let go of his beliefs.

Power does not work. It can only destroy in its efforts to control. But, this cannot come to light in the presence of the structures of belief.

Ego, identity itself, is the mechanism holding all this together. Any challenge to belief is taken as a challenge to identity and seen as an existential threat. The only recourse available appears to be to double-down.

Identity has such power because it strips us of integrity – dis-integrates us – and in this precarity we feel we have nothing to hold onto. Threatened, we fear for our lives.

Artist, designer, writer… moving between these purported identities has acted as a defense against the hold any one identity might have exerted over me. After many years of confusion, recognizing that these seemingly scattered efforts are aspects of one thing has kept me from despairing that to question self-identity simply leads to failure.

Strength cannot hide its limits. Power seduces with an illusion of boundlessness. Strength is integral. Power, disintegrating, an illusion masking our situation as we believe that our Will is a force that can achieve its stated ends. It is not. It does not. Driven by the projections of our shadows it carries us inexorably into unintended consequences.

An identity becomes an illusion-of-being as an accumulation of assumptions arising from an arbitrary accretion of conditioning. We can dismantle this trap if we disillusion our selves. A process whose prospects appear frightening though it quickly leads to a growing integration as we find our strength. Removing illusions frees us to find a place where action is no longer futile. Where we no longer simply feed our shadows, destroying everything in the process.

There are many possible identities. Labels that get between us. Between what we do, burying us beneath another pile of assumptions.

What matters to us, no matter how garbled and confused our expression of it may be, provides an entry-point. Nothing else will engage us deeply enough to provide the energy to begin.

There can be many entry points. Connecting with someone via what they find important leads us away from the traps of identity, breaking our customary delusional habit of avoiding any consequential topic.

Let us open conversations wherever we may find an entry. Let us open our selves to what matters to each other. Let us find ways to respond with what comes-to-mind. We may agree, or disagree, or hopefully do neither. Instead, opening our selves to whatever question arises in common.

This is what Dialogue offers us. It leads us to attend to the quietest voice in the room….

Nassim Taleb‘s point, our failure to address ignorance with anything but denial, is related to our insistence on identities forming a basis for our sense of being. It’s a signal of complicity in a delusion. Insisting it is more important to hide behind an unexamined certainty than to surrender to an infinity of the unknowable.

This complicity underlies the toxic simulacra of an actual community we reside in. A state of affairs brought about as a result of our shared belief in power. It overwhelms our ability to find and maintain faith in our strength. All the warring factions – the entire notion of war and factionalism itself – complicit in this delusion. Believers call it human nature.

I was raised on “Better Dead than Red!” Any such ultimatum, including our present insistence that our destructive course must continue at any cost, rests on a fine edge. Defending identity to placate fear we fail to open our selves to the foundations of mystery. We may navigate the unknowable if, bolstered by the buoyancy of faith.

This is the lesson within the story of Queequeg’s Coffin. Vital cultures are possible. As the force of mystery founders the juggernaut of civilization our strength may pass through traumatic boundaries, find ways to buoy us.


Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

3 thoughts on “Questions of Identity

    1. Thank you for this Jeff!

      “be ready to give serious and sus­tained attention to a paradoxical pattern that has come to dom­inate their thinking and feeling.”

      Such a reasonable proposal….


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