In part, this blog is all about identity: the history, heritage and ancestry that make us who we think we are. The Buddhists consider that these are part of the conditions that bring each person into being, but they also think that to believe that these conditions give rise to a fixed identity is to believe in an illusion: everything is subject to change, to impermanence, though it might come at the speed of light or the speed of a glacier. All life is a process of becoming something else. But our identity, well, we fondly like to think it is a rock to which we can cling in a whirlpool. It is often the best we can do to make sense of things, so that when we are forced to act in a way that denies our deepest feelings about ourselves, there can be a catastrophic disjunction. There is suffering. So are exemplified what Buddhists believe are the three defining characteristics of all sentient life: suffering, impermanence, and for all our feelings to the contrary, the lack of any inherent identity.
There have been a slew of books in recent years which turn on issues of identity, be it sexuality, race, or disability. I have just picked up two in succession. The first was How To Be A Boy, by the performer and writer Robert Webb, and the second, Proud, by the rugby player Gareth Thomas. They have this in common: overcoming the expectations of others to discover an identity in which you can be comfortable, in which you feel at home.
Robert Webb is a comedy writer, noted for his work with David Mitchell. His attitude to life is wry, distanced, that it is useful material for his professional career. His memoir takes a cold look at his younger self and doesn't always like what it sees, but he is able to remake it to suit his ends, which are often the laughter that comes from recognising a general if painful truth. But some of the truth is of suffering, the first of those three characteristics of life; in his case the early divorce of his parents, the anger of his father, the early death of his mother and of others close to him. Webb's way of coming to terms with these crises is to find humour wherever he can, by identifying the frequent occasions in childhood and adolescence when he failed to conform to the expectations raised by the stereotypes of boyhood, that boys are extrovert, aggressive, sporty: that they identify with their fathers and seek to emulate them. Such traits are the identity of boyhood. The painful disjunction comes in realising that you cannot conform to that identity, but rather, you are something other. Even those who naturally conform most nearly to stereotype will have moments when they cannot, when they feel alien. Suffering comes about, the Buddhists say, with the wish for things to be other than they are. Seen in that way, these are moments of suffering.
Alienation is the feeling of separation, of disunity. When Webb eventually reaches therapy in his twenties, his therapist is quick to recognise the impact on Webb's boyhood of repeated separations: but it takes Webb himself to identify the compounding of this by his inability to conform to the supposed characteristics of boyhood that are imposed upon him, indeed upon all males. Women, of course, have kicked against their stereotyping for years; the title of Webb's book is doubtless an emulation of Caitlin Moran's blackly hilarious How To Be A Woman. Both are more than memoir, a plea for valuing diversity, and a reminder that feminism is not just about women.
When Gareth Thomas was growing up in South Wales in the 1980's, he must have seemed the epitome of youthful masculinity. Six feet three, shoulders like tallboys (in Max Boyce's immortal phrase), lithe and fast, he took easily to a game in which, in its masculine form, a high level of testosterone is a given. He won a hundred caps as a back for Wales, was a member of Grand Slam and European Cup winning teams, and captained the British Lions. His moments of indiscipline are witness to a natural aggression that is almost a requisite of the sport. He must have seemed everything that Robert Webb was not. Yet he had a painful secret: he was gay. His memoir, sensitively written with assistance from sports journalist Robert Caplin, focuses on the apparent disjunction. Indeed, his successes on the field are passed over with a rapidity which might disappoint aficionados of the game. Rather, the book, as its title hints, becomes all about the pride that Thomas takes in the factors that for him comprise his identity: the loyalty to his family, to his home town of Bridgend, to Wales; and in the end to the ineluctable fact of his sexuality. There is an argument of course that pride in something that is innate, that you have no choice over, is irrational: this usage really denotes an absence of shame. Thus you can take pride in the achievement of playing rugby for Wales, but being Welsh is not in itself an achievement. And neither is homosexuality. But, and it is a big But, when you have struggled all your adult life to accommodate the expectations of others, even to the point of breakdown and suicide as Thomas has, then recognising your nature and standing up for it is indeed an achievement of which you can be proud.
Gareth Thomas retired from the professional game in 2011, having come out three years before. The years of his rugby career are years that saw an immense change in public attitudes to homosexuality, brought about in major part by the willingness of men like Thomas to be open about their nature. At the outset of his career a public declaration would have rendered such a career impossible: by the end Thomas seems as surprised as anyone at the acceptance that he found (with some exceptions) in the communities in which he takes such pride, family, Wales, and rugby too. They, and the gay community, are entitled to be proud of him in turn.
It may be that identity is indeed some illusion of the psyche, but it is a powerful one, perhaps the most powerful of all, so that it cannot be denied without suffering. Gareth Thomas is forty-three now, Robert Webb forty-five. It took each of them about thirty years to feel included, by finding an identity in which they could be comfortable. As long as we cannot value diversity, many will not be so lucky.