I just finished taking a class of high school students through the book Dances with Wolves, exploring the changes through which the main character passes in the course of the narrative. The most fascinating thing about making our way to the end of the novel, though, was realizing just how strongly the novel explored the concept of identity, and the idea that perhaps the identities that we were born with and raised under aren’t necessarily our true identities.
In the novel, Dunbar is an Army lieutenant, but he’s a man who never has felt a part of anything. He’s always considered himself to be an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong. When he finally “becomes” Comanche, though, he finds his true identity, and he feels authentic for the first time in his life. It’s not that he’s rejecting what he was, but more like he has reached an important place in his life towards which he had been traveling a very long time.
How long do most of us hold on to the identities that we’re born and raised with? How many people do you know who would fight to the death to maintain the identities with which they feel the most comfortable?
Could it be, though, that our true, authentic identities lie elsewhere than we think they do? Is it possible that one of our purposes in life could be to find out, to discover, who we truly are inside, as opposed to what we’ve been taught we are (which very often is more like what someone else wants us to be)? For example, I’ve always considered myself to be a college teacher, but now that I’m teaching high school for the first time, I find myself very comfortable there. So which am I–a college teacher, or a high school teacher?
The students really appreciated the idea that this man found his identity in something that previously had been outside of himself. They appreciated the fact that he had an open enough mind just to consider that there might be much to learn and appreciate in the Comanche way of life, as opposed to the other white men of his time who thought that Indians were simply savages who should be exterminated. They appreciated the fact that he had enough presence of mind to see clearly who treated him as a human being, and who treated him as just another soldier.
What is your identity? It’s not an easy question to answer if we think it through carefully. We can learn a lot, though, from the novelist if we think that our identities may be somewhere other than where we think they are–who we are is inside of us, and our authentic selves may fit better in different contexts than the ones we’ve been taught they should fit in. If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we may someday find the places and the people we’re meant to be with, and it may surprise us a great deal to find out who and where that is!