Distinctly You

“That I am I, I surely know full well,” proclaims Gerard D’Arcy Irvine in the opening of his poem “Identity: A Sonnet.” Such a proclamation seems obvious to make, so it might lead one to think there’s a reason he’s  compelled to voice this obvious fact. Indeed, the circumstance might be one requiring the poet to remind himself of the fact–even possibly to convince himself. What is it that causes one to stand uncertain in his or her shoes–to be unsure about being who he or she is?

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Personal hardship, particularly a chronic illness or serious disease, can make us wish we were someone else, living another’s life, thriving in a healthier body. But while hardship propels our lives’ narratives into undesired territory, it also adds important dimensions to our identities. It continues to shape us; it encourages continued growth. At this moment, the saying “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” might be brought to mind.


But this is about more than being strengthened by the traumas in our lives. It’s about embracing the identity that hardship has a firm hand in forming. It’s about accepting the many facets, “warts” and all, that make you distinctly you.

Gerard D’Arcy Irvine offers an insightful and satisfying perspective on such necessary self-acceptance:

Identity: A Sonnet
by Gerard Addington D’Arcy Irvine

That I am I, I surely know full well;
I know my littleness and little place,
And how I feebly run my life’s great race;
Yet if an angel came with power to tell
Me how to be another I, and dwell
In his environment and ampler space,
Myself, annihilate; I’d set my face,
And be myself, though prisoned in a cell.
God made me, me, in changeless entity,
And could I be another, where were I?
‘Tis not that others are not nobler far;
My light a spark, the while they sun-like shine
But living here or in some distant star,
Their lives are theirs, and mine forever mine.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

While Irvine seems to shrink himself in view of others, “My light a spark, the while they sun-like shine,” I don’t think this is to be read as self-deprecation but rather as noble acceptance of who he is. Indeed, the poet is careful to emphasize that others “are not nobler far.” The matter is not one of status or quality but is simply, well, matter-of-fact: he is he and they are they, and that is all.

Understood in this perspective, the desire we might have to be another, to live another’s life in times of suffering becomes meaningless. I know what you might be thinking: “easier said than done,” right? I agree that it is easier written than accepted. It’s difficult not to think of others’ easier, healthier, grander lives when ours is significantly troubled. But that doesn’t get us anywhere. Focusing on what isn’t possible (to be someone else, to have another’s life) paralyzes us. It doesn’t allow us to nurture our own identities.

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It doesn’t allow us to strengthen every aspect of ourselves so that we thrive in who we are.  

Besides, as Irvine so wisely points out, taking on another’s identity means we, because we can’t be two people at once, must “annihilate” ourselves. We are the main character in our life’s narrative, so we are in charge of its well-being. Just as our narrative is made up of many stories, so is our identity made up of many roles. Hardship creates new roles that affect the older ones. If, for example, our hardship is an illness, then our identity has taken on a sick role–a role that bears on our roles as wife, mother, sister; or husband, father, brother; and so on. Where we might have identified ourselves as a caregiver for others, we are now the cared-for, and our role as care-giver is necessarily affected.


Hardship contours our identity with a dimension of vulnerability.

While it is normal to view vulnerability in a negative light, it must be accepted and embraced. Acceptance of it is a response we can easily accept, since vulnerability is an effect of hardship that we, to some degree, are powerless to eliminate.

But why embrace this vulnerability?

Because embracing it means we can begin to understand it and can thus begin to control it. Once we can control the weakness, we can control how it bears upon our identity as a whole. We don’t become a vulnerable being; we become someone contoured with vulnerability and thus better able to empathize and care for others. Ultimately, we aren’t wholly weakened by the vulnerability but rather enhanced by it–our lives enriched by the perspective and understanding it gives us.

Such a response and effect take time, of course. It isn’t easy to so quickly throw off the blanket of sadness and self-pity we might wrap ourselves in. So let’s explore these feelings and feel the blanket gradually slip away. . .

  • Do you wish or have you ever wished you could be someone else or live a different life?
  • What, if any, masks have you worn and why?
  • In what way(s) do you feel vulnerable and why? Reflect on this vulnerability and how it has or could enhance who you are to yourself and to others.
  • What does it mean to be you and only you?


Please feel free to share your thoughts!


*Source: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/identity-a-sonnet/

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