Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Peril and Power of Identity

Posted by Bill Frase -

I’ve had some experiences lately (I’ll spare you the details) that have helped me to appreciate the double-edged nature of identity. Part of my identity happens to be the belief that I have a gift for interpreting life experiences (my own and others’).

Identity is an important aspect of being human, one that we often take for granted (usually at our peril). But for those who are willing to explore beneath the surface features of their lives, the possibilities are truly extraordinary.

Years ago I attended a presentation on the relationship between identity and human behavior. I don’t remember all of the specifics nor the statistics, but the main thing I took from that event was an increased appreciation for the power of identity.

A sense of identity allows one to feel that she is pretty much the same person she was relative to some other moment in time. This is generally a good thing. Memories and habits allow identity to develop and sustain itself. While these things are common aspects of identity, they can also become traps in an unexamined life.

Consider the case of a person who is not consciously processing memories or examining habits. A person in this situation becomes increasingly programmed to begin to believe that these memories and habits define the possibilities for her existence. While this can give a person a sense of security, continuity and stability, the danger is that one’s life increasingly takes on the characteristics of a carousel ride. One goes around in circles, maybe even moving up and down on a particular horse, but at the end of the ride, a person finds that she is in the same place she started. While there may be perceived benefits in this approach to life, growth is stunted and positive changes usually come very slowly and with much pain and struggle.

In my experience most of us define ourselves largely by our perceived limitations, shortcomings, mistakes, moral failings, addictions, disabilities, challenges, and wounds. Isn’t it often the case that we use words like “can’t,” and “I’m not” when we think about ourselves? Are these things actually true? Or do we say, think, and act upon these kinds of limited and limiting thoughts because we are afraid of what it would mean if they weren’t true?

What if these stories we tell ourselves are actually lies? For the moment, let’s assume that they are. If that's the case, then who are we really? If we base our lives upon lies, will we ever realize even a tiny fraction of the possibilities available to us? Will we even risk the possibility of bumping up against something unknown? What’s the point when we will not pass through the fog of fear and doubt to see what lies beyond?

Identity is part of what helps us make sense of the world. It is part of the foundation that under girds our perceptions and categorizations. But if our sense of self is not strongly linked to real things, we cannot really trust our perceptions. Our perceptions are warped and distorted, making terrors out of trivialities and treasures out of trinkets. Ask yourself, are you living inside a scary snow globe?

Our defense mechanisms do not constitute the real I of our identities. They are temporary attachments to the wonderful I that lies behind the strategies we have developed to protect ourselves from the disappointments and dangers that accompany real living. I know that there are powerful temptations leading us to cling to an imprisoned self in exchange for a false sense of predictability, security, and stability. I wrestle with these demons daily.

As long as we remain unwilling to leave our security systems behind, we will be imprisoned by our past patterns. I encourage you to do something, anything that you can think of that might scare you a bit, but that would also feel good if you were to actually do it. Even taking the smallest step in a new direction can begin the process of expanding your ideas about who you really are. The truth is that none of us have experienced more than a tiny fraction of all that we really are and all that we can really do. By doing this simple exercise, you can begin to experience a world with broader horizons, higher skies, and more of everything that you are longing to give and receive, helping yourself and others to play in a universe of ever-expanding possibilities. This is why we are here, whether we realize it yet or not.

1 comment:

  1. Exceptional Blog topic Bill. Nicely done. And, as usual, I couldn't agree more.
    I began breaking past patterns at the age of 13. My courage to do so came from the very strong woman that raised me. She fostered a belief in me that I could truly do anything- if I put my mind to it. She was right. I thank every day for her.