I've slowly been coming to understand and being able to articulate what I feel in regards to my chaotic identity. Collective identity, by definition, depends on external validation. It involves having a joint goal and values, and feeling a sense of "us versus them", even if it's only in a friendly kind of way.
Religion is one common collective identity. So is national identity. Both identities I've struggled with over the years. On one hand, I've wanted to "belong", on the other hand I've prided myself on thinking for myself, not being part of the herd mentality. I don't maintain any level of loyalty towards my alma mater, I'm a political independent, I'm nonreligious, I consider myself a global citizen rather than a proud American or Pole. I've been paying the price for not having a collective identity, but that's because I'm still carrying an internalized sense of needing external validation. There is something subconscious that still tries to convince me that in order to truly be whole, I need an identity that includes others, not just me.
Perhaps the closest thing to a collective identity for me has been my interest in green living, attachment parenting, ecumenical perspectives, and social justice. But there are so many varieties within each, that while I can certainly gain support for my values and priorities from these "groups at large", there's enough differences that I still feel like an individual among individuals.
So what I've come to see is that instead of trying to find a collective identity, I need to work towards transcending the need for a collective identity. I need to work on identifying with all living beings, with life itself. I need to be able to see the similarities between myself and any other given person. I need Eastern Philosophy is what I need.
But then the social justice voices come out - cultural appropriation! You can't call yourself a philosophical Taoist! That's not true Taoism! You must have the religious ritual and mythology if you're going to call yourself a Taoist! And it worked - I politely set aside my desire to delve deeper in that direction, only now I realize that this attitude is the enemy of transcendence. This idea that we need to keep to our "own" cultural traditions is how we stay divided. Of course, I understand and reject the idea that white people should extract bits and pieces of what they like from any given non-white culture and then reframe it as a fad and make a profit from it. But to limit which of the various human experiences I as an individual can draw from on my spiritual journey of self-impovement is poppycock. That's the best word I can think of.
So moment of truth. It would seem that I do not really know who I am unless I have a label assigned to me that allows me to trace back how others with the same label identify. Sad but true. I look at tight-knit religious groups or marginalized minorities who band together to fight for dignity and recognition and freedom to just be, and I admit, I get jealous. My white privilege allows me to see their oppression as something to be envied. It sounds disgusting, doesn't it? But I'm not here to spin stories but to speak my truth. This is why I have always been attracted to what I call "the underdog". Yes, it's my white privilege that lets me choose to root for them. But so what? I recognize that, now let's move on.
I understand that my jealousy of what I perceive to be a solid identity among marginalized groups is a form of exoticism, fetishization. Instead of letting my imagination run wild in that direction, I need to really understand what's at the core of this feeling; I feel as though I don't belong, and I wish I did.
I now see this as a deficiency of character, this wanting to belong, as it's just a desire for external validation. What I need to work on is establishing an identity that is self-contained on one hand - not dependent on the agreement of others, and universal on the other hand - allowing me to see myself as a drop in the sea of humanity.
To that end, I need to find lone-wolf role models and learn from them how to forge a truly authentic identity and sense of self.