“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”
Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club
So who are you? I hope everyone has at least briefly struggled with that question because I think those that struggle with it the least are living poorer, less fulfilling lives for it. Attempting to define what identity means is a critical part of being a human. So much of our identity is given to us through culture and family as life defining blocks of characteristics. The characteristics and norms of your family, religion, city, state, and country (among so many others) determine much of who we think we are. The truth is though that who we are should be defined by what is inside of us. And much of that is only tangentially related to those circumstantial things. It’s easy to accept the role you are given and play along with it for as long as possible, but that’s a dangerous road to go down. Those are the people who get to middle age or later and realize they don’t have the connection to the world that they envisioned for themselves. They played out the role and then realize they don’t like that role or what it has brought them. They are then forced to do all the hard work of reevaluating their identity at a point late in life when there is a lot more resistance, financially and socially, to making huge changes in one’s life. And there’s your mid-life crisis.
I drive a big pickup. It wasn’t that I set out to buy a big pickup, but through a series of choices and circumstances I ended up with one. It fit my needs and the price was right. So now I have a big pickup. But none of the choices I made involved how people would see me for driving that vehicle. Most people are surprised when they first see me in it. They don’t see me as the type of person to drive that type of vehicle. That’s because the idea of a “big pickup person” carries a whole list of connotations along with it. Most of which don’t fit me. You’d be as likely to hear me playing Nine Inch Nails as Regina Spektor. Neither of which really fit the stereotype that goes along with my vehicle. I can fix things on my vehicle, but I’ve also been known to cry in it. I’m a machinist, but I’m also a writer. I have a degree in film production and English, but I work in manufacturing. I collect vinyl records, but I love what the internet has done for music. The point of all of this is that everyone’s identity is made up of infinite contradictions. And they are only seen as contradictions because we have such a limited view of how certain characteristics are supposed to correlate. When someone reveals something about themselves we too often fall in to the trap of making a host of assumptions about that person. We do the same thing even with ourselves. If you’re born into a Midwestern, Protestant, middle-class family there certain characteristics that are assumed to go along with that. We take for granted many of those things that should be choices. Question the assumptions that accompany your position in life. Ask why you do the particular things you do. Why you enjoy, partake, participate, buy, sell, believe, and disbelieve all the things you do. It’s far too easy to let the things that are put onto us by our culture be the things that define us for the rest of our lives. As I said earlier that’s the way to a mid-life crises or death-bed regrets.
Identity needs to be constantly reevaluated. That reevaluation is scary. It is looking directly at oneself and seeing what’s really there not just what one wants to see. At some point in reevaluating your identity there is a point at which you realize there are things you need to let go of. Things that started as a genuine representation can become habits that only continue because they have continued for so long. Since 1998 I have saved nearly every one of my movie ticket stubs. I don’t even remember how the tradition started but I now have almost 20 years’ worth of stubs. I used to get some amount of joy out of having saved them all for so long, but over the last few years it’s just become a habit and nothing more. It’s hard to let go and it seems silly to put so much emotion in to such a trivial exercise, but I realized it was losing the sense of continuity that was the hard part. But it’s time for changes, both large and small. This is one of them. I’m no longer the person that collects ticket stubs.
Identity is as much about what you aren’t as what you are. Learning what you aren’t is just as important. I’ve tried learning several musical instruments and given up. I’ve tried to learn to draw and given up. I’ve tried to learn French and given up. I spread myself thin working on too many things at once, lose focus, get frustrated, and ultimately give up. The returns of immediate enjoyment don’t outweigh the immediate frustration at not being able to do the thing I am trying to do. And that makes coming back to that task more difficult each time. I’m not a person who can focus on learning multiple complicated things at once. I need to focus on one at a time if I am going to make any progress. Another hard lesson to learn. But a useful and important one. I can’t do all the things I want to do at once. I need patience, focus and to allow myself time.
Don’t let culture, family, or social groups determine who you are. Contradictions are only contradictions because you are taught that they are. Embrace them. Evaluate who you are and what you want regularly. Make changes accordingly. Be who you are rather than whom you feel expected to be. And most important of all, Jamie, take your own advice.