Being held in one's identity

Holding and personhood

Living through 2020 has forced many of us to reflect with a new kind of urgency over the things that sustain us and make life livable, meaningful and at times happy. We do not live by bread alone, but our knowledge of what else we actually do live by is often scanty. There are also great individual differences, once we move beyond the biological necessities of clean water, food, warmth and some degree of human contact. Some people seem perfectly happy to be confined to their homes, while others suffer severe distress when social activities, cultural events, family celebrations, and the like are put on hold. The effects of the forced solitude or, for those with family, the lack of solitude brought on by lockdowns and measures of social distancing, has been much discussed, along with the difference between real life and web-based communication.

In the midst of these disruptions in our social fabrics, reading Hilde Lindemann’s book Holding and Letting Go. The Social Practice of Personal Identities (OUP 2014), I find myself captured by her conception of how persons come into being and are sustained by the people around them. In Lindemann’s own words, quoted from the preface: “Holding and Letting Go is a work in philosophy that aims to describe a moral practice we engage in constantly, but that has not received much recognition as a moral practice: it is the practice of initiating human beings into personhood and then holding them there.”

The book begins and ends with borderline cases of personhood, where a special effort of holding is required: a severely disabled infant incapable of reciprocating in the making of her personhood, and a patient with late-stage Alzheimer sliding out of personhood. But the practice itself is equally relevant for each one of us. We hold each other in personhood through recognition and response. Or as Lindemann puts it:

“Recognition and response are often a matter of understanding who someone is and treating them accordingly. Whether these understandings are self-conceptions or others’ sense of who we are, they consist of a web of stories depicting our most important acts, experiences, characteristics, roles, relationships, and commitments. This narrative tissue constitutes our personal identities, which play a crucial role in the practice of personhood.”

Lindemann’s choice of word, “holding”, makes close relations the natural paradigmatic case of this ongoing social activity. When all goes well we hold, nurture and care for our children, our spouses and our close friends. These are the people most likely to have a robust narrative grasp of “who we are”, and are thus often able to reciprocate the holding over time.

But people have plural roles and plural identities to go with them. We also hold our colleagues in their identities by engaging them in conversations, addressing them in accordance to their professional role, by relying on their expertise, by sharing information. Group activities around sports, choirs and orchestras, charity work and congregations, for example, create another layer of holding, in identities that make a difference to our place and orientation in the world. Even minor contacts – the quickly exchanged greetings on stairs, a polite phrase at the cash register, chat about the vacation at the hairdresser’s – hold people in their identities of neighbor, loyal customer, familiar person.

All of these forms of holding in personhood and in identities are intimately linked to agency. Being asked to write a peer review report enables me to see myself as someone who can do it. Being known as the well-dressed elderly gentleman enables me to put on that good suit and go out for a walk. Being addressed as a provider of nurture and care makes me capable providing these things, even when I may feel to tired and only want to withdraw. Being seen as no one in particular might be liberating at times, but is stunting and unbearable in the long run, if it becomes the dominant mood of one’s human encounters.

People’s lives are very different regarding the forms of identities and holding that sustain them, and these differences come out when the peace of life-as-usual is broken. Some people have many deep and substantial relations to family members and friends. In a situation of lockdown, for example, they are likely to miss many people dearly but can in today´s conditions easily keep up these relations by means of zoom, phone calls, e-mails and chats.

Others may live richly peopled and fulfilling lives without such close friends and relations but are more vulnerable to the loss of daily activities and meetings. The casual chats that seem natural when you share an office space, may not warrant compensatory zoom sessions when working from home.

Others again, for reasons of health, age, temperament and various adversities, might be only very minimally held in their identities even under ordinary conditions: the retired widower who never had many activities beyond his demanding work, the unemployed twentysomething recovering from depression, the migrant who was only starting to build a new life. We do not always know who these people are. A scarcity of sustaining, holding encounters and relations is possible in many kinds of lives, even those that seem ordinary and populated enough.

The idea that we continuously hold each other in identities, and thereby in personhood, may help us to think about some of the potential consequences of temporary or more permanent changes to our complex social fabrics of activities and relations. If we are not properly, substantially held in our identities by other people, we successively become strangers in this world, stunted in our ability to act, to be persons, to bring (borrowing form Hannah Arendt) something new into the world.

Nora Hämäläinen