In the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor’s journey is one of an identity that is systematically stripped back, broken and reforged through tragedy, through times of transition. Over the course of 7 movies in the Infinity Saga, he goes from an arrogant prince eager to ascend to the throne of Asgard to abandoning it completely for a life as a self-accepting simple adventurer banding up with the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Time will tell if he continues on this path as we move into phase 4, but watching this video breakdown of his cinematic story got me thinking about the tension that exists between our perception of our identity and its reality. A tension we must navigate to reach fulfilment.
Life’s journey sees us transform over time, adopting and abandoning identities. At each point in life, who we are is partly self-generated and partly shaped by our environment, specific context and the expectations of implied roles.
As small children competing with siblings for attention, we might play the bully, or the funny joker, or the needy vulnerable one to get an edge. In school with our peers, we navigate identities to figure out who we are and where we fit in the larger community. We undergo the same process, in every new stage and level of life. Identities evolve and change as we do.
It is in the transition between phases of life that we usually have to grapple the most with identity. Who we were isn’t enough for where we are going. We have to change. So, we experiment with different roles to find ourselves, sometimes playing the same roles multiple times until we finally understand just who we truly are and who we are not.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I face personal transitions and I think the process of navigating identity in these times has something with three things – ‘the person you think you are supposed to be’, ‘the person you actually are’, and ‘the person you can be’.
The person you think you are supposed to be
No one exists in a vacuum. Our society, our upbringing, our culture, our family, our social circles, our roots, the cities we settle in, all provide a context in which our lives are immersed and in which we must create meaning. As we grow, we fall into roles that are laid out for us, implicitly or explicitly. There are also hopes and dreams thrust upon us, the expectations of the people we should become, and the kind of things we should do. Often, we internalise these expectations and make them our own.
We want to do our folks proud. We want to earn the approval of others and maintain the status quo of our communities. This can work out fine if there is enough overlap between our true identities and these expectations placed on us, or it can cause a lot of friction if there is dissonance between the two.
I expressed a bit of this idea in my piece exploring the lessons gleaned from Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse. Miles tries to be like the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. In his mind, Peter is the example of the kind of person he is supposed to be.
But it is unwieldy, it is false, and it is not until he has his personal catharsis and he relaxes into the person he actually is (Miles), that he is able to be effective as the new Spider-Man.
We all want to be something and become someone. Our hopes and dreams for our lives pull us to higher places. When we transition from one phase of life to the next, we have preconceived notions of what we are supposed to look like on the other side.
But we must examine these desires and perceptions to know if they are truly our own, or if we are chasing things thrust upon us and missing our true selves. Because if not, disaster ensues.
The person you actually are
It can be a terrifying thing – being yourself. Many of us spend our lives running away from our true selves. Unwilling to bring our essence to light, unabashedly, unashamedly. Unwilling to live our truth. Because truth can be painful, and uncomfortable. Truth challenges us, and often, breaks the tidy lil boxes and moulds that we have created for ourselves.
But the person you actually are is always there with you. Always lurking just below the surface, coming up in those moments when we think it is safe, when we are alone, or lost in a crowd.
The person we are, the impulses, drives, desires and attitudes that arise from deep within are to be wrestled with and navigated. Sometimes, there are things here that make us feel complete, alive but we judge as bad – a sensual proclivity or orientation, a restless desire for adventure, or a yearning for a quiet unassuming life.
Between the demands of culture and the world around us and these truths that arise from deep within , the friction easily arises. Do we stand our ground and assert our identity, our truths, consequences be damned? or do we capitulate and maintain the status quo.
There are no easy answers.
Sometimes we must assert ourselves and choose our fulfilment and happiness no matter the discomfort or stress involved. At other times, we have to fulfil our duty to the greater good and the collective.
But you cannot escape yourself, if this tension is not adequately navigated, it will rear its head in some way. Either in the incident that blows up, or a low level simmering sense of resentment that eats you up on the inside.
The person you can be
Maybe there is a middle ground, I think it lies in the person you can be. This person is your true potential. A place of balance. A place of truth. A place of growth and real acceptance. Where your nature can blossom and your real gifts can be given.
I think a successful resolution of the tension between ‘who you think you are supposed to be’ vs ‘who you truly are’ gives birth to this third ideal state – ‘who you can be’.
The person you can be is rooted in who you truly are. It is a place of authenticity. But it also understands that who you are now is just raw material for what comes next. Even in that state of being, you must evolve and grow and integrate. You must be refined into the best version of yourself.
It honours your aspirations, your dreams and vision. It takes into account the expectations, and the needs of those around you, and then bridges the gap between two and allows you to evolve to your best self.
We do not use who we are as an excuse to rage against the machine or waste away. But we harness that potential, that energy to create something beautiful and meaningful.
In this way you integrate the person you truly are against your expectations and duties to become the person that you can be, someone who is authentically alive, fulfilled and connected to the larger tapestry of life.