Or, why i re-thought the value of identity.
It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
A couple months have passed since I spent a Monday night in the hospital so I could have a scan of
my body. My doctor ordered the CT to see if there is any new cancer lurking somewhere among my organs. These scans are regular occurrences. Every year I submit to drinking some ghoulish concoction designed to light up my insides when the x-rays pass. It is a safety measure to ensure I am still healthy since I was diagnosed in June 2011 with a fist-sized tumor sitting and growing atop my left kidney. The doctor cut me open, pulled the tumor and my kidney, and I have been clear ever since.
That does not mean I am not affected by the tumor’s ghost. Once you have cancer, you always have cancer. The invasion forever stamps one’s psyche with a reminder of just how fragile our bodies are. I am luckier than many; I had only a short surgery and a month of recovery. I didn’t have to go through the insults of radiation or chemotherapy. Still, I am a cancer survivor like those who have had those treatments. We share a brother- and sisterhood of malignancy. We each have experienced an unwelcome, ill-intended visitor to our cells.
Once you have cancer, you always have cancer. The invasion forever stamps one’s psyche with a reminder of just how fragile our bodies are.
The irony captivates me. I have built my life around a love of fitness, particularly running. The endeavor of running and cycling all those miles helped to create a self-image of invulnerability to, among other things, cancer. Running was a pillar of my identity as a vital, healthy, almost unstoppable human. Things could go awry in every other phase of my life–and they had often–as long as I ran and engaged my deep connection to a vibrant self.
Like a hammer to glass, cancer smashed my identity into shards. To someone who was so conscious of how his body operated, what foods gave energy, how muscles and tendons moved, who ran a meticulous check of every sensation when running like a fighter pilot doing an in-flight check on his Stealth aircraft, cancer was an inconceivable shock.
If the miles I ran could not prevent cancer, why all this attention to health and fitness? If I am not the 50-ish exception to the decay I see in “regular people” who the hell am I?
If I am not the 50-ish exception to the decay I see in “regular people” who the hell am I?
The devastating destruction of my physical self-image made me rethink the value of identity. Or more specifically, what is the value of holding onto identity when so much of our lives is constantly changing? I just listened to a podcast with Rich Roll, an ultra athlete, author of Finding Ultra, and vegetarian who advocates plant-based living. Roll, who creates the podcast each week with his wife Julie, said something which stuck with me: our identities reflect our life experience. And new experiences reinforce or tear at those highly protected self-images.
Before cancer, or any life event for that matter, we are one person. After, we are another. We cannot help but be affected by events and sometimes they so shake us our images of ourselves have to change. Divorce, being fired, accidents, departures. Our lives are built of these moments, and like any moment, they must pass to allow for the next. But often we hold onto events and swaddle them around our identities like children we have to safeguard. Roll advises us to check the veracity of our self-images periodically as they also become handicaps.
It is like holding onto sand. The more tightly we grip, the faster it falls away.
Clinging too tightly to identities as if they were as right as concrete runs counter to the realities of life. It is like holding onto sand. The more tightly we grip, the faster it falls away.
In my head–and heart–I am the same runner I was at 24: lithe and efficient, cruising effortlessly at sub-6:30 pace. I am those miles. And yet I’m not.
Here is the truth (and you can tell everyone you read it here): Our identities don’t matter. They are merely stories we tell ourselves. Identity is the narrative we decide to embrace through the lens of our experiences.
But what if that story is flawed? What if the story we tell ourselves about who and what we are is simply wrong? Isn’t it possible the identity based on that story also is just as wrong?
I look at my father, now 85, much in the same way I did when he was 20 years younger and it pisses me off sometimes that he is not My Dad at 65 or 55 or 45. I want him to be younger almost as badly as I sometimes want to be me 20 years ago.
Identity is the narrative we decide to embrace through the lens of our experiences.
The six-and-a-half pound baby girl I carried through our front door for the first time years ago is now in college. Yet my image of her remains locked as the little toothless, laughing, needy bundle inside that young woman. So what is she? My newborn or my teen-aged college student?
It is not fair. But I can’t help it. Freezing my daughters and my dad at their younger ages is part of MY identity. Another story I tell myself about who I am.
Eckhart Tolle said, “Realize that the present moment is all you have.” The present is who and what we are. The past, at least our interpretation, is the story.
No one gets through life unscathed…We cannot escape the assaults on our self-images.
No one gets through life unscathed. We all have setbacks, hurt, despair. We cannot escape these assaults on our self-images because they are a part of every life. Holding tightly to identities like invulnerable marbles dimishishes one’s ability to respond to what life is giving and to move forward. The more we remain tied to our stories, to our outcomes, the less able we are to shed identities which no longer serve us for more authentic ones. I suspect the happiest, most well adjusted people are more attuned this. Gordon Livingston says in his wonderfully profound book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, “You are what you do.” He was referring to the contrast between our intent and our behavior. But I could apply this to the idea of identity: “you are what you do in this moment.”
I’m still going to run. I’m still going to pay attention to what I eat. I’m still going to aspire to be a really good dad. I’m still going to hate those cancer scans. I will fail along the way. I will fail forward. How well we recognize that our identity is as changing and ephemeral as the stories we tell ourselves about who we are is a better measure of life than how much our self-image is reinforced.