My last post (New Diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), about clearing out stuff from the past, generated lively discussion in the comments and some questions from a reader:
How much of “you” is made up of your current actions vs. the accumulation of your past actions? Is my past even relevant to (my children)? Is it relevant to me anymore? How do you, Ilona, create your identity in the present while still acknowledging the past that contributed to who you have become?
Before I try answering them, I want to introduce the images accompanying this post. I created the photos in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (1999), where I took an art sabbatical after completing a consulting job in Mexico City. These pictures are the results of experiments with multiple exposures, using a 35mm camera and myself as a subject. Even then, long before I discovered spiritual practice, I knew I had misgivings about identity. As a traveler, I’d had the experience of feeling like a different person when abroad; each place I visited elicited new or unexpressed aspects of my being, as if the environment were co-creating me. I sensed that no label, or set of labels, could accurately capture who I or anyone else really was. Identities were like clothing, required to participate in society but possibly masking our essence. My body and mind seemed to host a multitude of characters and sensibilities who did not conform to the North American narrative of a singular or even dominant identity, especially when it came to career. While my stint in Mexico City was often frustrating and lonely, living in a culture where identity centered more around family than work further opened my mind to the possibility that we are not what we do.
From the moment we’re born, other people are shaping our identities. Our parents name us, decide what to feed us, where to raise us, and choose whether to educate us in a particular religion or not, among many other decisions that create lenses through which we interpret the world and perceive ourselves. They might project their own unmet needs or unfulfilled wishes onto us, giving us what they didn’t have, whether material goods, opportunities to travel, or private education. They may do all these things with the utmost love and good intentions and, at the same time, be oblivious as to who their children are or what they need, either in a given moment or over many years. If caregivers are too fixated on their own identity and role, or are in reaction to the unskillful or abusive parenting they received, or are distracted by personal issues, they might be blinded at times as to how to connect with their child. Narcissistic parents might foist their passions on their offspring, rather than allowing them to develop independent interests that might challenge the parent. Children, wanting love and fearful of losing it, might tell themselves stories about who they are and how they should behave to conform to the family narrative, whether stated or implicit, rather than risk authenticity and rejection. The process of relying on the ego to create stories and invent identities, rather than living from an authentic place and allowing an identity to emerge organically, can create difficulties later on.
Now, to the questions.
How much of “you” is made up of your current actions vs. the accumulation of your past actions?
I’m glad the “you” is in quotation marks. In my 20s, for example, I had constructed an identity as an “international” person. The identity had some basis in authenticity: I loved travel, exploring new places, and learning about other cultures. I earned a Master’s Degree in Economics and International Relations, even though midway through the program I had misgivings about it. At the time I identified as “not a quitter”, so I completed my studies. I traveled to Latin America for work, then moved there. However, the work itself rarely felt right or satisfying yet, despite my deepening unease, I was attached to that identity. At the time, I was heavily invested in being “different”, yet another identity operating beneath the surface. But the accumulation of trying to be “different” over many years, in many situations, among many different people, created more loneliness than connection. At the moment, I am both aware of the painful residue of this accumulation and also taking steps to counter it. It’s hard to quantify how much of me, or anyone else, is from before. If we cease repeating our past actions and create new actions, those can change and possibly transform us. Not over night, but over time.
Is my past even relevant to (my children)? Is it relevant to me anymore?
I imagine that children want love and attention, to be seen, heard and validated for who they are so they learn to trust themselves rather than developing an identity based on pleasing others. To connect with a child or another adult means to fully inhabit the present moment, in which the past is irrelevant unless it, or unresolved issues from it, pose obstacles to focusing on the now. As adults, we choose whether the past, all or part, is relevant anymore. A college friend, remembering I had majored in mathematics, recently asked a few of us on Facebook to solve a math problem. I tossed my textbooks years ago, along with the last vestiges of that identity. Her question stumped me. That I felt no shame or regret about not even wanting to attempt to figure it out meant I had made that part of my past irrelevant, ditto for the identity that I “always had to have the answer,” as if not knowing were shameful. If I were to meet someone today eager to know what my college major was, I would probably ask them why they felt that to be relevant.
How do you, Ilona, create your identity in the present while still acknowledging the past that contributed to who you have become?
Identity can get very complex and layered. Do we identify with our gender, religion, birthplace, alma mater, country of residence, a sports team, family of origin, political party, a movement? Do these identities have equal strength at all times? Did we truly choose them or did we just go along? What if part of our identity is based on what we don’t do (e.g. shop at big box stores, attend football games, pay more than $30 for a haircut)? What if we identify with intangibles, such as beauty or wisdom?
To create a new identity of the more conventional variety, reinforce it with corresponding action until it becomes a part of who one is. Want to be an artist? Start, and keep, making art. The danger for me, and I suspect for others, in hewing too tightly to a specific identity is that the circumstances that contributed to it can fall away. Then what? I wrote about that here, concerning my current inability to hike, an activity that used to be a centerpiece of my self-image. Most of us probably identify, even if just subconsciously, with having excellent health; should we lose it, we have to change our conception of ourselves and locate identity elsewhere. In my mind, I try to keep my identity sufficiently flexible and loose so that I am not closing off possibilities for expression. The identity of “I am a person who takes care of herself every day” can be fulfilled in more ways than “I am a person who swims a mile a day”. If I say I’m a “creative” rather than “an oil painter”, I can switch from one medium to another or mix them without angst. And if I am not traveling the world, can I still be a curious explorer in my own backyard? If we focus on the essence, our outward identity can take many forms. This culture, which values tidy narratives and packaging, often doesn’t know what to do with people whose identities are more fluid than fixed.
In my wanderings around this planet, I’ve met many people who have switched gears, making a break from past experiences to live into something new. Boulder, CO is filled with people on spiritual journeys, which often involve undoing, unlearning or releasing past contributions, especially when it comes to ways of thinking, behaving and even moving the body that no longer serve. It can also mean trying new things that a former identity, being too rigid or fear-based, couldn’t incorporate.
As for acknowledging the past, there’s a Hebrew blessing, the Shehechiyanu, which is recited on special occasions or when something happens for the first time (such as the first snow fall of the season). To paraphrase, the text thanks the Creator for giving us life, sustaining us and enabling us to reach this moment. Maybe all we need to do to connect past with present is to feel gratitude, and not just on special occasions, for everything that has happened. My Zen teacher also advises a gratitude practice. When we’re living from gratitude, we’re present with life right now. As Emily Dickinson said, “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” In that startled space, identity and the past are largely irrelevant. I’ll end with a question of my own:
If you didn’t remember who you were yesterday, who would you be today?