On another day this image could evoke a contemplation on birth, fertility or gestation. Today, because I’m seeing this chicken egg as the potential for an individual, it draws me into considerations of identity. It prompts me to ask, “Who am I?”

I once heard a story about a prince who was asked this question by his sage tutor. The prince gave his name and the sage shook his head. “That is what they call you. I want to know who are.” The prince answers again with his title. “Are you not more than your title?” asks the wise man. “Who are you?” “I am the son of a king,” the youth says. Again, his teacher shook his head. “Who are you?” This went on and on until the prince could answer no more. “If I am not what I am called, if I am not where I come from or the family or kingdom I was born to, if I am neither my body nor what I say or do or think—because thoughts are fleeting—who am I?” The sage looked the prince in the eyes and said, “To know who you are, remove everything about you that can be named. What is left is who you are.” The prince frowned. “But that would be the same for everyone.” The sage patted his pupil on the hand. “Now, do you see? We are one in being, many in becoming.”

The story suggests that identity is a verb, not a noun. We are entities in process, lives under construction within the context of “interdependent co-arising,” a Buddhist phrase signifying that everything is contingent upon everything else, and that everything in the universe is emerging as a unified whole at every moment. But there’s more to it. Being precedes becoming. I have to be, in order to become. So our deeper identity is even more fundamental. And that takes me to another story. This one is true. Ishi was a Native American who survived the genocide of the Yahi Indians of California by living in a cave for many years. Anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman were excited to find someone who spoke the nearly extinct language. Fortunately, they found a speaker of Yana, a related language, and this man understood a little of what Ishi was saying. With the tape recorder turned on, the first question they asked was “Who are you?” Ishi responded by telling a story that lasted two and a quarter hours. And he refused to stop until the story was fully told. Eventually the linguists discovered that he’d told part of a creation story called “How Wood Duck Wooed His Bride.” To explain who he was, Ishi told about the archetypal characters from whose wise and foolish acts he learned his strategies for living. He saw himself as one who enacts, re-creates or brings into the world through his living, the wisdom and behaviors of the creators. Such enactments of creation are at the heart of indigenous ritual around the world.

In both these stories, individual identity equates with the whole, however that is perceived. Our labels, skin color, cultural affiliations, family and other relationships, status, occupations, resumes, beliefs, values and other attributes do not define us. All of these distinctions can be shared by others. It’s just that the more distinctions there are, the easier it is for an outsider to separate one individual from another. So this is what we do. And it’s what those in the identity business attempt to do by associating us with ID numbers, passwords, fingerprints, iris scans and pin numbers. By increasing the number of distinctions, incidental identity can be narrowed to a single individual.

What about DNA? That’s unique to each individual. Am I my DNA? Not even physically. A DNA sequence is just the blueprint for a particular body. It doesn’t define us as a person. Being self-aware, I know that I am more than my body. Am I then the amalgam of a uniquely integrated body, mind and spirit system? That doesn’t work either. Heraclitus famously noted that we can’t step into the same river twice. Just so, this body, mind and spirit—person—is not who I was yesterday.

A mind game provides some insight. Imagine that you are the only person on the planet. You know this to be a fact. Everything is intact, as it is today, except you have complete access to all the riches and resources of the world. No locked doors, everything is open and available. On the one hand you have the world all to yourself—unlimited and healthy food, the grandest living quarters, access to the great libraries, museums, technologies, access to great art and recorded music, including the Internet. On the other hand, it’s lonely. You can’t ride a roller coaster because there’s no one to stop and start it. Studies have shown that isolated human beings don’t survive for very long.

Now, add another person of the same sex. When you were alone there was no distinction. Now there is. His skin is white and yours is black. He is short; you are tall. You like art and music; he prefers fast cars and hunting. Add another person of the same sex and there are more distinctions. This third individual asks, “Who are you?” And you say “I’m the tall black guy who likes art and plays a guitar. This is not who I am, but the descriptors distinguish me from the other two individuals. As people are added, distinctions become more and diverse. And as the numbers increase, each person becomes more unique and his or her bundle of differences can be used to identify him or her—incidentally. Again, substantially, the differences do not define them. In the previous stories, the perception was that I am who I am as a consequence of the whole. Said another way, my being is grounded in the beingness that we share. The more of us there are and the more diverse we are, the more unique each individual becomes. Dr. Beatrice Bruteau expressed this succinctly when she wrote that “Distinction and union arise together.” Teilhard de Chardin S.J observed that “Union differentiates and personalizes.”

So in this image of an individual egg, I appreciate that its fundamental identity as a potential bird, rests neither in the attributes that will distinguish if from other chickens, nor in its function as a producer of more eggs and chickens, but in the fullness of its “chickenness.” So one chicken asks another, “Who are you?” The philosopher chicken answers, “I am the substance of chicken.” Extrapolating, when asked about our own identity, an answer that is more accurate—but far too cumbersome and pretentious to articulate—is that we are the substance of humanity seeking to understand what that means in the context of an interdependent and emerging universe.

Among the definitions of the Indian greeting, “Namastè,” there’s one that comes fairly close to acknowledging this. “Namastè: I honor that place in you where, when you are in that place and I am in that place, we are one.”

Birth is bringing what is inside out. Ecstasy is bringing what is inside out. The whole natural order, the cosmogenesis, is a cosmogestation. It is growing as an embryo grows, organizing itself, and progressing from stage to stage, ‘fulfilling itself,’ so to speak, becoming what it is.

Beatrice Bruteau

About This Image

Title: Egg

File #: S382

I wanted to capture the texture of an egg in a high key context, so I set up a 4×5 camera and extended the bellows so the egg, sitting on a curved piece of plexiglass, would fill the frame. Not wanting much depth of field, I kept the lens fairly wide open, perhaps at an aperture of f4 or f5.6. So as not to create a dark shadow, I bounced the light off a white sheet of foam-core placed overhead and adjusted it so the shadow would grade in the middle of the egg. That helped to accentuate the texture as well. White egg, white background, one light, shot on color negative film. In Photoshop I gave it a slight tint. Otherwise, it would have appeared to be black and white.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

One thought on “Identity

  1. I appreciate the storied shared. This contemplation really makes me wonder. If being-ness creates greater and greater distinctions among the many parts that make up the whole, how do we focus more on the whole and less on those distinctions? Seems like there would be a natural tendency to notice and examine parts and differences and do so critically to better understand all aspects of the whole. But that can become divisive. So how do we appreciate the parts but also notice the whole more? I love this photograph. The subtle gradations of light and tones is so gentle and beautiful!



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