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Identity: fixed or flexible?

When I was 7 years old, my maternal grandparents drove 10 hours from Fergus Falls, Minn., to visit my family for a few days in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kan. As my grandmother’s first grandchild, I enjoyed exceptional attention from her.

“My first-born,” she would coo, rocking my head back and forth. “My first-born.” She repeated the words like an Israelite after the Plagues of Egypt. It was wonderful.

Jenna bothered me. As siblings, my 5-year-old sister and I were close only in birth order. She existed mostly as that nuisance who had the adjacent room. An unruly scamp.

So when Jenna abruptly started using phrases like “May I please” in front of our grandparents, I nearly lost it. Jenna had never learned manners; she whined constantly. She was obviously pretending to be polite. Why didn’t anyone notice?

“She’s faking it,” I cried. “Jenna’s faking it, Mom.”

My mother shushed me and resumed marveling at the two-faced child in the living room.

Today, the tight-lipped individual my mother knows as her son no doubt differs from the person my friends would describe. Even my identity as a co-worker is distinct.

At some point, the insincerity of social performance I detested as a 7-year-old seeped into my own life. These years, I fake courtesy much more than any 5-year-old sister.

It could be that I shed pretenses only when I’m alone. I know I drop inhibitions when I’m dancing like a gawky new waver to Blondie with the shades pulled. Is that real? Maybe that’s what an untainted human spirit looks like: wild and shamelessly happy.

Last semester, one of my professors shared the idea that most of our body’s cells are generally seven to 10 years old. Regardless of scientific accuracy, the notion that we’re essentially reborn every decade seems too idealistic, even for me.

I understand personality is a pliable thing but surely there must be an unchanging core — traits immune to manipulation, behavior impossible to fake? Can a person fail to catch that barrelling train called socialization?

As a tragically shy high schooler, my thoughts often flirted with a fantasy in which I could adopt an entirely new persona. Come next school year I would be unrecognizable, I thought. I promised to ignore lunchroom politics, raise my hand in class and not squelch all my questions.

I was an independent entity. I thought I could change, but I never did. Every first day of school, I would invariably lapse into cowardice once again — an irreversible product of a chance adolescence.

If I can hardly keep a tenuous grasp on my own identity, how can I or anyone ever hope to truly know someone else?

I’m reminded of late nights when I return to my narrow studio apartment in #227. While I’m fumbling for my keys, I’ll occasionally catch a sliver of light emanating from underneath the door of #228. And sometimes over the rattling of my ancient radiator, I’ll hear the faint rhythm of snoring from #226 as I lay in bed.

There’s something impenetrable about the human soul. I’ll never know these people, and they’ll never know me. We can only recognize the exterior markers of another human existence. Perhaps minor contentment rests there.



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