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Exploring Identity

R_Massey's picture

            It is an innate sentiment of mankind to search for definition, belonging and purpose. We try to find groups to label us, activities to give our days meaning and people to find ourselves with. It is this eternal endeavor, this search for identity that brings out the beauty in life. We seldom realize how incorporative all the elements of our surroundings are to our identity. Whether it be with the physical or social environment, we are shaped by our experiences and interactions. In trying to understand what we come to uncover, we are faced with the question of what to do with our new knowledge of ourselves. In Elizabeth Kolbert’s novel, “The Sixth Extinction,” we are presented with the knowledge of our own detrimental acts against the earth. In Ruth Ozeki’s book, “All Over Creation,” we are shown the power of interpersonal relationships on individual development. In Teju Cole’s article, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” we are challenged to be apart of the world by separating ourselves from it. All of these works hold a piece to the connection between identity and environment.  It is in the root of these author’s ideas that we find a way to find ourselves in the world we live in.

               It is not a new enterprise of man to manipulate the environment and take from its resources. Since we came to be on this earth, we have taken from the fruit that grows, eaten from the animals that live and created from the rocks that are around. The great change in how we attempt to control the environment today is what calls for a reassessment of our actions. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert sets out to describe five major extinctions and prophesize a sixth. Describing drastically different ends, Kolbert writes of small frogs and great Mastodons. She paints a picture of the beautiful but decaying coral reefs and amazing but catastrophe filled caves. Kolbert writes of all these extinctions and builds up to what the next great collapse would be, us. She brings to light the negligence of our world and deterioration of our ability to inhabit it. We frack for energy while knowing it causes great rifts in tectonic plates. We continue to rapidly burn fossil fuels when alternatives exist and our ozone layer disappears. “The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust…” (Kolbert, 269). Kolbert predicts a great extinction of mankind, but I believe it does not have to be an extinction of us as a whole but a piece. In opening ourselves up to our failings, being vulnerable to our faults, the next extinction can lead to a new development in human interaction with the world.

            Though usually seen as a weakness, vulnerability is truly the greatest power one can have. Vulnerability leaves one open to harm, but also open to growth. Ozeki’s characters all find themselves faced with the trauma of vulnerability and find strength in accepting it. The relationship between Yumi and her father, Llyod, is just one example of walls being torn down and a relationship being renewed. Having run away from her father and mother at a young age after a dicey affair, Yumi has barriers that do not leave her open to trust. Having lost his daughter and experiencing several heart attacks after, Lloyd lived in fear that his heart could not handle anymore let downs. Upon Yumi’s return home, it is not hard to tell that these borders make trenches between the two. Only when Llyod is near his final moments, experiencing the greatest vulnerability of life, are they able to be truly earnest with their love for each other.

“Why, Yumi,” he said at last, as though it were so apparent to him,  the  most  obvious

            thing in the world. “Of course you are.” His words were no louder than air. I crumpled

            then, bending and gripping his cold wrist. “I love you, Daddy,” I sobbed into his palm.

            “You’re with me, too,” (Ozeki, 367)

            It is this drastic form of vulnerability that we are called to take up, like armor, to fight against the wrongs we have done. We must make an effort to shed the skin of selfishness that we wear and help to amend the environments we find ourselves in, one way or another.

            With the call to change and manifest vulnerability made clear, it is now put into question how these realizations should take effect. It is in answering this question that we look to Teju Cole’s piece on perspectives of interaction. At first glance, it would seem that I am calling everyone to switch to solar panels and plant a tree. Those are nice things to do, but what if there was more we could do by not doing? Cole argues for this point, of helping by sitting on the sidelines, in reference to American involvement in outside politics. “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement,” (Cole, 7). In the same way that other people deserve respect to their abilities to fight for themselves, the environment should be given the opportunity to habilitate itself. In part with utilizing solar panels, we could drive our cars less. In part with planting trees, we could not tear so many down. In thinking ourselves great royals over the land, we forget that all we are and can be comes from the land. We are not accepting our vulnerable nature to nature. Instead of realizing that we are a cog in the machine that is environment, we attempt to control the whole machine from the inside.

                  Our interdependence with the world and those in it is abundant. It is at the source of who we are and how we come to discover our identity. In the writings of these three authors, it is revealed to us that there is a method to personal inquiry. Kolbert calls us to act, Ozeki describes how we are to interact and Cole warns us of our over-action. With fear and apprehension, we must delve into our roles as investigators. We must open ourselves up to whatever there may be to discover and react accordingly. Without this continuous renewal of self and exploration, human development will be brought to a stand still and left without reason.