On Being and Identity


Standing here on the cusp of a milestone birthday of sorts, the sense is one of relief – that what has been a deeply emotive, if difficult year, has ended without too much lingering damage. Much of course is relative, depending on that difficult to define quality emotional capacity, or resilience. To my untrained mind, it would appear that like muscles and exercise, the more experience one has had dealing with trauma and difficult, emotionally charged situations, the easier it should get. I suspect the jury is still out on that. Tempering the sense of relief is a sense of clarity, the detached sort that hits in the moments between when a car begins to skid off a bridge and when it hits the icy water beneath. Time, in those moments, seems to stand still, each event on the time line of dying taking on crystal clear quality, like an HD frame, frozen. This birthday has that feeling of being a portal to inevitable change. The facts are what they are, I am now nearer forty than thirty, and that realisation in one fell swoop takes away any remaining pretensions to enduring youth I still have. What this does in addition is bring to the fore the questions of being, identity and direction I have managed to sweep under the carpet over the past few years.

There is a sense in which one’s perception of person-hood and identity is shaped by experience, particularly experience of the sort acquired in the formative years of childhood. These experiences occur within the context of role and society, being shaped by multiple layers of interaction – faith, family, culture, education and exposure all being contributors to their nature and quality. In my case, my childhood experiences aggregate around three locations – church, school and the house on 3rd and 49th. Although in my mind I was a model kid, I suspect my mother felt differently, if the notes in the margins of her copy of James Dobson’s Dare to Disciplinequietly stubborn – are anything to go by. Perhaps, if she had been familiar with the blunter crafty little bugger she might have chosen to use that instead.

Being the preacher’s kid changes everything. I got dragged along to umpteen conferences, youth group meetings, sang in the choir, and gave the occasional message from time to time. In non-church settings, this also meant that I was held to a higher standard, the oft repeated line being, your father is a pastor, as though that fact – in and of itself – meant the natural proclivities of childhood did not apply to me. I did have my own defining, emotive moments too. I recall sobbing uncontrollably at an Easter Conference in April of 1991, whilst the speaker, Venerable O, calmly insisted that it was the last chance for quite a few of us at the meeting. I was 12.

School was the one place I was marginally popular. It helped that I had a reputation for being smart, a reputation forged on the back of two years in which the resident genius and I tussled for the top two positions in class. One of my enduring memories from that phase of life is being made, whilst in Primary 2, to stand up in front of one of the Primary 3 classes to read from their MacMillan reader. Mrs A – whose intentions I am not entirely sure of any more –  had been passing during a period of inactivity, post exams, and seen my head on my locker. When she found I had been engrossed in tales of Edet’s escapades, she was impressed enough to make me read in front of the older class. That in retrospect was one of the first inklings I had that books and reading could be cool. Later on – in my secondary school days – a slew of Enid Blyton, Pacesetters, Nick Carter and James Hadley Chase books would plug my entertainment needs. Being on the debating team – slight stutter notwithstanding – and the JETS club didn’t do any harm either.

Books are also prominent in my recollection of the home space – more so than the relationships I developed at home to some extent. We had them in abundance, shelves and shelves of Baldwin, Chaucer, Dickens, Emerson, Joyce, Shakespeare, Spencer, and others of that ilk lined our living room, as did Achebe, Ekwensi, Salib and the other authors on the African Writers Series imprint. Beyond that, home was an experiment in behaviour modification, James Dobson and Beverley LaHaye’s tomes being the laboratory manuals that guided everything. When I ask my sister if she’s kept my mother’s copy of both books, she assumes I am going through a season of self doubt and straight away proceeds to reassure me that my mother thought very highly of me. I humour her, listening to all she has to say, but the truth is all I am interested in with these books is understanding the notes in the margins, and what my mother’s perceptions of me as a kid were as opposed to what my own assessments of self are.

On my part, whenever I have had to describe myself, I find myself reaching for the familiarity of a few well worn phrases – recovering bookworm, corrosion and materials engineer, talkative introvert, Lost Son and Nigerian. On occasion, I have also described myself as a pretend writer, inveterate over-thinker and occasional essayist. Inherent in these descriptors, but not often clear are conflict and evolution.

Work – and the Corrosion and Materials Engineering discipline – has been a big part of my life over the past twelve years. Prior to rust finding me, I had aspirations to becoming a video game programmer – I spent my NYSC year free time coding an idea for a football simulation game, that obviously wasn’t very good. An internship in a steel mill probably sowed the seeds, bringing iron-carbon phase diagrams and time temperature transition curves to life for me, but when I set out for a mechanical engineering degree in ’97, my more romantic notions were of designing and building things, not eking more and more years of life from them. If what I hear at work is anything to go by, I’m not terrible at doing that, once in a while I still feel like the chancer who stumbled on to something good and has held on for dear life.

Books continue to be a big part of my perception of my identity, somewhat tempered by the ‘recovering’ qualifier these days. Bookworm still retains a certain pejorative connotation; in conversations, and perhaps for good reason, there is still the perception of reading as being a nerdish, real-world-useless activity. I suspect I opt for recovering to slightly reassure me that I am on a journey to re-engaging with the wider world.

Given how much faith underlined my life growing up, its absence in my self description seems particularly glaring. The last few years have seen me slide deeper and deeper into a state of cognitive dissonance, the increasing disjunction I feel between my real world and faith perhaps driving me towards playing down its importance.

To a lesser extent, self classifying as a talkative introvert also reflects inner conflict of some sort. There are friends who don’t believe I have quiet moments given how much of a buzz I carry when I am around them. Some others sincerely believe I am deeply introverted – and take it upon themselves to draw me out. The notes in my mother’s copy of How to Develop Your Child’s Temperament had me pegged as predominantly choleric. These days when I take personality tests I shake out as INTJ and temperamentally as largely Phlegmatic. Clearly, I was a lot more talky and pushy as a child, or at least masked my introversion very well. I still sometimes wonder how much nurture can account for my current social attitudes as opposed to my nature; that is neither here nor there I suspect.

Lostness for me, has a long and convoluted back story, inextricably linked to a strangely spelled surname that immediately complicates my sense of identity, a point that Chris makes succinctly in his take on the Straight Outta *insert whatever* meme.  Only yesterday at a ten year old’s party, I got talking to someone who straight away switched the conversation to Yoruba, wrongly assuming that I understood it. I don’t. This is further muddled by being treated very much as a minority in the (Nigerian) state my parents hail from. All this has done is build an increasing sense of disenfranchisement, and left me with no real stake or connection to the political entity of Nigeria. That may be another reason why work, and rust, have become a big part of my identity – the first few years spent working in Nigeria showed that it was possible – by being darned good at what one did – to transcend the limitations of ethnicity.

Here, one sleep away from beginning this ineluctable lurch towards turning forty, what is becoming clear is that there is a certain logic to how I self classify. These are the things I do not suck at. Maybe in describing myself in these ways, I am patting myself on the back virtually, celebrating the little victories life has lobbed in my direction so far. Would I, for instance, like to be a better people person, one that walks into a room and lights up the party? Yes, but only sometimes. I suspect that deep down, that sort of change requires going out on a limb and being very vulnerable, risking rejection and growing thick, callused skin that inures one to the discomfort that failing to get what one really wants brings. Whether there is the willingness on my part is a question I have no answer to, yet.