Faith Gong: Of quizzes and identity crises

My children have done many things to amuse themselves while staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have read, read, and read some more. They have logged in countless hours on our trampoline and ninja slackline. They have played games: chess, poker, Apples to Apples, Unstable Unicorns, and Monopoly Deal. They have made art, baked, finished embroidery projects, and all four of my daughters are currently at work on novels.

But one of their most enduring hobbies throughout this time has surprised me: The taking – and making – of personality quizzes.

It started back in March, when a friend emailed me a link to a quiz that inventoried your personality traits and produced an extensive list of the book and film characters you most resembled. Thinking it would be a fun diversion, I shared it with my daughters. Little did I know that they’d take the concept and run wild with it. 

At the time, we were reading Little Women together. The protagonists of Little Women are the four March sisters, and I have four daughters, so it was only natural that the first personality quiz my daughters created was “Which Little Women Sister Are You?” 

This was followed by our entire family’s Harry Potter craze, during which we binge-read all seven books in J.K. Rowling’s epic saga of a teenage wizard. The Harry Potter books lend themselves to all sorts of personality inventories; the official Harry Potter website is filled with quizzes that tell you which Hogwarts School house you’d be assigned, which wand you would carry, and what your “patronus” (a sort of mystical guardian animal) would be. My daughters took every quiz (multiple times), and then created their own, such as “Which Hogwarts Professor Would You Be?” and “Which Harry Potter Villain Are You?” 

It’s now gotten to the point that, whenever we read a book or watch a movie, my daughters immediately write up a quiz to determine which character they’d be. They don’t stop there, either; they’ve taken to administering their quizzes to family and friends. 

“Mommy,” they’ll ask as I’m washing the dishes, “what word best describes you?” before rattling off a list of ten adjectives, each corresponding to a different character.    

It’s all innocent fun, but my daughters’ quiz obsession got me thinking about how we determine who we are. Because it’s not just children who try to piece together their identities using multiple choice questions; from what I see, my fellow grown-ups love personality inventories just as much as my daughters – everything from the fun little quizzes shared on Facebook to the more weighty Myers-Briggs and Enneagram tests. We use these tools to tell us what we’re like, how we handle stress, which professions best suit us, and what qualities we should seek in a mate. 

It’s fascinating how much validity we give these outside tests. Instead of assuming that we might just be the authorities on ourselves, we click bubbles on a computer screen, hit “send,” and then trust that whatever some program out in cyberspace spits back at us will provide deeper insights into who we are. Why is this?

I suspect that, when it comes to our identities, it’s much easier to look to outside sources than to do the hard work of looking inside. Knowing myself requires sitting alone with some uncomfortable facts about who I am and how I behave, it involves dredging up old emotions and examining them in the light, it means forming opinions based on what I really think and feel rather than parroting back what others tell me. And it takes time – a lifetime. I’d much rather click a button and find out that I’m most like Beth March, that I’d be in Hufflepuff House, and that I’m an INFP. 

I’d even hypothesize that the challenge of quarantine for many of us is that we are so used to framing our identities based on things outside of ourselves that, when those things are stripped away, we flounder to know who we are. If I can no longer shop in my stores, eat in my restaurants, go to my job, or interact with my people, am I even me

This is true on an individual level, but it’s just as true on a national level. It has been a hard week, a week that’s caused me to wonder, How much more can our country possibly take? This week, the United States surpassed the grisly milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, the virus that united our country for one brief moment in an effort to slow its spread before we splintered apart again, largely along political lines that should arguably have no bearing on a public health crisis. As if that wasn’t enough, this week we also saw George Floyd murdered on video, another horrific story of a black man killed by police brutality; nationwide protests in response to the video turned violent, resulting in more death, destruction, and politically polarizing reactions.

We look like a nation with an identity crisis; we don’t know who we are.

When we, the individuals who make up our nation, turn to outside sources to tell us what to think, what to feel, and how to behave, we largely hand over our ability to respond with rationality and compassion. It’s so much simpler to outsource our thinking and feeling to politicians, talking heads, media outlets, or celebrity spokespeople, but we’ll almost always be fed back simple answers based on either fear or anger. And anger and fear breed the false dichotomies that we’ve seen this week. 

For instance: It should not be impossible to protect human lives to the best of our ability, while also taking steps to help those who are suffering the economic impacts of a pandemic. It should not require violent protests to see justice done in matters of systemic racism, nor is it productive to respond by making the central issue the behavior of angry protestors. And in neither of these cases — which should excite our human sympathy and desire for healing — is it appropriate, helpful, or even logical to divide along political lines. But these things require time, deep and creative thinking, and coordinated action. It’s so much easier to just scroll through my newsfeed and repost polarizing editorials on Facebook. 

When we experience a week like this, I agonize over how to respond. Should I make a donation? Share my thoughts in writing? Attend a protest?

This week I realized that perhaps one of the most lasting things I can do — for our country and our world — is to raise my children to know who they are. They are unique individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, and moral compasses. I can teach them our family’s beliefs and values, read them history, fill their imaginations with stories of heroes who make right choices in hard circumstances, and solicit their opinions in discussions about current events. 

I can tell them: Who you are is more than your results on a personality quiz, your academic transcript, your resume, your credit card bill, or a political ideology. You, in all your complexity, confusion, and contradiction, are a miracle — and everybody else is, too. Navigate accordingly.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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