The Identity Trap: Suffering or Transcendence?

At birth, our identity—our answer to Who am I?—is simple: human. Yes, most of us have a discernible gender, which historically was also a given, but today is considered “assigned.” And, we now have some flexibility to change that later in life through medical intervention and the re-selection of pronouns. We also enter the world with other markers of identity emanating from our inheritance of genes, skin color, and ethnicity, but this is also true: at the moment we come hollering into the world, we are as close to a clean slate as we will ever be for the rest of our life. The twist I am proposing here, which is contrary to what most Americans practice in our slice of Western culture, is that in the latter stages of life we should, in order to achieve a sense of what I call “sweet peace” prior to death, seek a return to that clean slate.

As we progress through the four quarters of life—preparation, achievement, actualization, and transcendence—we add and subtract identifiers through everything from the clothes we wear, to our affiliations and associations, to family and personal relationships, to the knowledge and beliefs we call our own. This constellation of identifiers are a mix of self-selections and social impositions. We decide on many of them by ourselves while others are laid upon us by society, about which we can either embrace or reject, but about which we have little say. This reality is complicated further by the fact that our identifiers define our self-perception of who we are, which is seldom, if ever, the same perception others have of us, and about which we have limited awareness. The construction of our identity is a messy process, but is widely held by psychologists as critical to our mental health and general well-being. The answer to Who am I?, drives much of our decision-making that plots—both directionally and strategically—the arc of our life. The search for meaning and purpose—Why am I here?—is heavily influenced by our constructed identity, whether curated or imposed.

By day two of our life, the process of identity construction is underway. Throughout the early years of the first quarter (preparation phase) of our life, our parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, coaches, and friends are the key influencers of our identity. During this phase, the scales of which identifiers are self-selected and which are imposed tips heavily in the direction of imposed. Socialization and indoctrination are the dominant processes in our lives until we gain enough of our own knowledge (acquired empirically and experientially) to tip the scales to a more balanced mix of self-selected and imposed. Our identity is first expressed in a major decision when it is time to leave home. For those who go to college, the decision of which one to attend is influenced by a number of factors: location, cost, academic orientation, etc. But if we hold those constant, the predominant criteria is the goodness of fit between our identity and those who already attend any particular school. On visitations, just watch your child as they walk the campus. They have one question on their minds: do I fit in with these people? Do our identities jibe? The question you ask upon returning to your car, “What did you think?,” will be based on if they see themselves with those people in that place.

As we enter the second quarter of our life—the achievement phase—identity becomes perhaps more important than in any other phase. This includes the years of early twenties to midlife when we stake our claim on the world. When our principal modality is striving. We work; we partner; we make decisions about where to live; we have children; we declare membership in churches and political parties; and, an array of other social, community, and professional organizations. Our list of identifiers naturally peak during this phase of life and provide the capacity to affect two critical contributions to our well-being: belonging and differentiation.

Belonging is a natural and powerful motivation of every human being. More than fitting in, as described in the kid going off to college, belonging is about being adopted into a group (broadly defined) and also about adopting the norms and belief systems of that group. More than an element of our identity, belonging to groups acts to both clarify and limit that which we believe in. Our perspectives and our minds are narrowed by belonging, which in this period of our lives (often described as hectic and complex) serves to simplify our world thereby reducing life’s many sources of anxiety. In the achievement phase of life, belonging has significant benefits for safety, security, and general well-being.

Personal differentiation is also made possible in this phase through our identity. What makes us special? Attractive? How do we stand out? Why are we preferred to other human beings? Companies spend millions of dollars on differentiating their products and services from those of their competitors. As individuals, we do the same thing although most of us prefer to be subtle about it unless our last name is Kardashian. Still others of us stubbornly deny we are seeking differentiation even though the Birkenstock sandals or Nike running shoes on our feet are just another identity marker that yes, defines who we are. Differentiation is natural and inescapable. The Holy Grail of marketing, as I used to advise my clients, was whether or not a product or service found its highest value in contributing in a beneficial manner to the identity of the customer. If it did, both stable demand and price inelasticity (the customer will buy regardless of price) were assured. Ka-ching $!

As we enter middle age—the third quarter and the beginning of the actualization phase of our life—we begin to evolve from striving to thriving. Identity remains important, but we need more than the fruits of striving to achieve a higher state of well-being. This is when meaning and purpose come into higher consideration. Belonging to groups often becomes tiresome. Acquiring status symbols lose their shine. We begin to realize that our prime—at least physically—has passed. Maintaining our physical selves takes greater effort but, the good news is, our mental capacities and capabilities begin to contribute more to our well-being to compensate. It is when we begin our transition from what British psychologist, Raymond Cattell, identified as fluid intelligence to crystalized intelligence, commonly known as wisdom. For many, the actualization phase is the most rewarding of their life. The things we find meaningful in life—from careers to children to our spiritual sense of being—begin to be realized; they come into fruition. Success becomes defined as having a durable sense of standing in the world we claim as ours. Striving, plus this sense of meaning, produce thriving.

Sometime in this third quarter (usually late in the quarter) something else occurs that defines the balance of our lives—that either set up the possibility of transcendence in the last quarter, or send us on a path of physical, mental, and emotional decline into a fourth quarter of suffering where we languish rather than rise to achieve liberation and, ultimately, sweet peace. We either recognize the constraints of our constructed identity and work to shed many of its aspects, or we allow it to harden in a manner that narrows our world further, foreclosing any hope of liberation. Those who fail to recognize that liberation-cum-sweet peace is only possible if we rise above ourselves by shedding our once useful (but now detrimental) identity, will be chained to a treadmill that is no longer moving. They will hit a wall of irrelevance and, too often, spiral into a life of bitterness and depression.

My lesson in this regard came fairly early in my third quarter, but the revelation it provided was not apparent to me until I had completed many years—fifteen-plus years—of reflection. It was my participation in the two-week Wilderness Skills Course at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming that set the stage for my revelation. In the first few days of the course, which navigates a piece of the Wind River range of mountains, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I wanted to go back to Lander and drive away. My motivation for attending at forty-one years old (by far the oldest in the course) was to not only learn wilderness skills, but also learn to follow. Yes, not lead, follow. The contrarian in me thought what better place to learn to follow (after being a leader in business for the prior twenty years) than a course where everyone else was trying to learn to lead. (That part worked out spectacularly well.) When the two weeks came to a close, I was weirdly overwhelmed with a desire to stay in the wilderness and skip the bus ride back to Lander. The revelation that took so many years to kick in was that I had discovered a new sense of euphoria having been stripped of my identity and allowed to form a durable relationship with nature that could not care less about my carefully crafted identity.

In the years that followed the NOLS course, I began, slowly but surely (and largely sub-consciously), to shed my identity. Weirdly, it started with no longer wanting logos on my clothes which, for someone into sports and recreation where logos are everything, was especially challenging. Then, dropping my memberships, affiliations, and associations with all manner of groups, including political parties. My appetite for things—for superficial ‘stuff’—also declined as my wants and desires waned. Moving from Texas to Colorado also allowed me to drop many aspects of my identity just by the act of relocation. Today, I am much less defined in my identity, but also less encumbered to explore life in an open-minded and open-hearted manner. Rather than becoming, I can focus on just being. I am, slowly and deliberately, erasing my slate. Nowhere as clean as the one on the day I was born, but cleaner than it has ever been since. To be clear, I have not lost myself. I still know who I am. I still engage with the world, albeit in a different fashion. The irony is that by shedding the things I allowed to define me, I know myself, and have created the space to honor that self, more than ever before. If others find me perplexing, so be it. It’s my life, not theirs. And, I can set that self aside to sit in a seat of greater awareness to appreciate much more of a world that is both disturbing and enchanting.

The above thesis and framework were developed and synthesized studying a number of cultural anthropologists and psychologists as well as spiritual teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Singer, Jeanne-Marie Mudd, Joan Halifax, Adyashanti, and Joseph Goldstein. This is my path to transcendence which, I have to say, has lit many light bulbs for me in the last two years. Probably more so than in any other intellectual/spiritual process I have engaged with in my previous six decades. I feel I have found my path to transcendence. That said, all, or some, or none of this may be applicable for your path. One of the things I have learned is that such pathways to transcendence and sweet peace are as individualized as fingerprints. I share it in the chance it may be beneficial to you, but take it or leave it as you wish.

What I can say is that calm is my new joy. After a great deal of tumult and pain in my life during the last two years, I have found a place of equanimity. The disturbances and discontents that inflicted others no longer afflict me. FOMO (fear of missing out) has been replaced by the equanimity of missing out. Let the rabble roar. If you have triggers, they are yours, not mine. My awareness is elsewhere. My mind is sucking up knowledge like a kindergartner. It is a very different me than the one I left behind. No burdensome expectations or obligations, no doubts, or fears, or anger. Moreover, no hurry. Death will come when it will and I will welcome it in the same manner I welcomed life: with a sense of optimistic curiosity. Whether it is a door or a wall doesn’t matter, because I have my sweet peace in this world and it is simply magnificent.