The Collective

Welcome to our keynote address! Now please join the motherbrain.

Oh my — I’ve really gotten myself into a pickle this time. Here I am, standing at the podium (a figurative podium, of course) addressing a conference hall chock full of people. The topic of the day: identity. This is where I clear my throat nervously into the microphone. And pause.

I don’t know how I got here or what makes me qualified to speak on this subject — I’m no psychologist or philosopher.

The only individual on whom I can claim any sort of expertise is myself, and if you want to hear about me, you’re in for an especially yawn-worthy time. I count among my distinguishing traits my extreme indecisiveness and a propensity for procrastination.

(Looks like some people in the back are trying to sneak out. Have to throw out something sensational, reel them back in …)

What I’m really here to talk about is an epidemic! (Ooh, that sounds good. Confidence building …) With our increased mobility, advances in communication technology, and rapidly growing world population, we are now in contact with more people than ever before. We’re practically drowning in people!

As if to counter this sense of suffocation, we hunger for self-definition. We fill out surveys and quizzes to tell us what kind of friends, mothers, and lovers we are. We enumerate our favorites in every pop cultural category with as much care as we choose our political leaders. We try out for reality television shows. We blog. All this in hopes of establishing an identity for ourselves, to stand apart from the crowd.

But the hunger is rarely satisfied.

That’s because identity is intangible, a mystery. I can write all the facts about myself on individual slips of paper — my interests and beliefs, my family history, my physical traits, my Social Security number — and toss them in an overturned top hat (a prop sure would’ve been nice here), but there’s no magic that will allow me to pull a Sarah rabbit out from its depths.

Now I need a nice transition. I had a professor who used to shift gears by tossing out a heavy question, pausing to let it hang in the air … and then he would proceed to answer it himself. Like:

If I am not all these useless bits of trivia, then what am I?

Heck, I don’t know. You don’t know. The people who think they know all disagree about it. My best guess is that I am this cluster of cells and you (let me ready my pointing finger) are that cluster of cells. That’s special enough, don’t you think?

I don’t stop and think about cells often enough, but they really are marvelous. I am not one thing, really: I’m a composite of trillions of other living things, a factory of microscopic entities working ceaselessly to manufacture me.

Now, cells don’t think — at least not in the conventional sense — but together they make up my consciousness. Aren’t thoughts just a complicated game of catch between a system of neurons? And who knows what impels them to keep playing, to tell me that I’m tired or thirsty or in love?

Similarly, don’t we humans shuttle ideas back and forth between us in our own networks? Perhaps the macrocosm in which our interactions take place has a consciousness — an identity — of its own. Our minds are mere nuclei within that mother brain. (Ah, a Metroid reference. If anything, the loins of a few nerds in the crowd will be stirred.)

So, I pay tribute today not to my uniqueness, but to the little workers who keep me going, who perform their functions tirelessly and with little to no consideration on my part, as far as “I” can be separate from them.

Thank you, neurons, for helping me come up with at least some idea of what to talk about. Thank you to all those in the ocular region for helping me to keep my eyes open as the hour draws late. Thank you, fingers, for typing these words.

It looks like my time is up, and maybe some of your neurons are telling you right now that I am a damned fool. Still, as foolish as I may be, the thought of working in concert with you to create even the tiniest bit of meaning here is quite lovely.

Article © 2007 by Sarah David