Identity. It’s a simple word and seems pretty straightforward when we look at the world around us. From the ‘outside’ identity is determined by names, driver’s licenses or website logins. And to some degree we all probably look to external cues like appearance, job titles or social circles when judging others’ identity. But if we turn the concept 180 degrees and ask ourself…when we try to define what our own “identity” is…that simple word can bring a blurring of thought.
In the movie “City Slickers”, “Curley” torments Billy Crystal’s character by promising the answer to one of life’s greatest questions…What’s the meaning of life? Even my ears perked up at the thought of this answer somehow being delivered by the end of the movie. Eventually Billy Crystal’s character does come to his own understanding of what the wise old Curley alludes to. But I personally remember walking out of that movie mildly frustrated that I did not have a clear concrete idea what that “one thing” really was.
Years later I’m still intrigued by the question. My answer is still in development, as yours is perhaps. But while my developing answer is not as concrete as I’d like, years of training in psychology and work in the field of psychotherapy have defined clearer boundaries to the universal “stuff” that will comprise our individual answers. And that training, my own growth and listening to others struggle with the question have underscored the vital importance of simply asking the question every once in a while “what is the meaning of MY life”. The path to that answer is our identity.
When we have too fuzzy an idea of what makes us ‘us’… when we haven’t clarified and in some cases chosen between the contradictions that often exist within us….life will be difficult. We will flounder in our careers and relationships. But the good news is that identity is not some thing “out there” that we must find.
Our authentic identity is intentionally built, it may not just ‘evolve’. Life is full of moment to moment tradeoffs. As our western culture has evolved, a strong sense of unique personal identity that provides a guide to life’s decisions is becoming more of a premium than a standard. Commercialized childhoods (and adulthoods for that matter) encourage us to idolize fictional characters or idealized lifestyles rather than create and develop our own unique identity and mature belief-system. With so much encouragement to focus outside of ourselves for direction, no wonder many people end up feeling ill-equipped to handle the real world in an authentic way. In fact we often do ‘evolve’ into a habit of ignoring the inner cues that can direct us to choices that are at least authentic, if not popular or mainstream.