Author’s Note: A version of this was previously published as an episode of my podcast “Crazy Day”, which can be found here
Some of my favorite questions to ask are the ones that seem easy to answer initially, but show their depth the more you try to work at the answer. A popular topic for conversation on this site, and an important one, I would argue, is “What is a man?”, but perhaps more broadly, we might just ask, “What Are You?”
Both questions are deceptively tricky to answer. The answer seems so obvious at first, as evidenced by the fact that some of you stopped reading just now to think about how silly this blog post is because of just HOW obvious the answer is!
But after some thought about the answers that I came up with, and observing the ones that others give, I think we can start to see weaknesses in the answers that we hear, and work towards something stronger, more solid, more foundational. I should also state that I’m not sure that this will end with a definite answer, as much as I feel it might just get us closer to truth of it.
I approach this problem like the old Michelangelo quote about making a sculpture:
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
See, at this stage in my life, I define my identity as who I REALLY am deep down at my core. It’s what’s left behind when those things that can be removed or taken away are; when all that is left behind is what can’t be taken away.
But let’s start where most people do, at least in North American culture: with what they do.
You might be an engineer, a programmer, a nurse, or a scientist.
Me? I’m a computer guy, a communicator, a woodworker, and a gamer, among other things.
These are all true statements about my job, my skills, or my regular activities and interests.
But… those things haven’t ALWAYS been true. Before working for a software company, I worked for a contractor, I was also a land surveyor, a waiter, and a soldier, to name a few. I only got into woodworking in 2016. And at one point in my life, I wasn’t ANY of those things…but I was still “me”, right?
Since what I do can change, and my identity doesn’t change with it, it would stand that what we DO isn’t really a good measure of our identity.
How about our place in society or our family structure?
From that approach, I’m a son, a father, a husband, and a brother, among other things.
But until my brother was born, I wasn’t a “brother”. I wasn’t a husband until I got married in my 20s, or a father until my kids came along…so at some point in time, I wasn’t one or more of those things. And the unfortunate fact of life is that death means it’s possible that I may return to a state where I’m not one or more of those things.
But I’ve ALWAYS been me, and always will be, right? So they can’t really be who I am, either.
I can hear some of you screaming how a man is a protector or a provider!
And while it could be an interesting conversation to have about whether that is uniquely true of men, there are plenty of men who don’t do either of these things very well, and, under some circumstances, such abilities could be taken away from those that do.
If I were to be paralyzed, I wouldn’t be very capable of being a protector, would I? Other injuries or ailments could limit or outright destroy my ability to be an provider. But even if that happened, I would still be me, wouldn’t I? I would still be a man, right?
So it would seem that physical capability doesn’t have to do with our identity by my definition, either. Or at least, we can lose pieces of it without losing our identity.
What about our biology? Maybe as a man, I can be identified by the part I play in the procreation process.
But then I think about my friends who have never been able to have children. Or those that simply choose not to have them. What about a soldier who loses that ability due to wounds received in battle? Or a man who gets old enough that those parts don’t work like they used to? Are they not MEN?
For that matter, do we REALLY WANT to be identified solely (or even in part) with a few bits of flesh? I mean, is something so important as my identity really so dependent upon something so fragile?
And therein lies the problem with finding our identity with what we can see and measure.
Or put it another way, with what we can lose.
See, if I can lose something, and still be me, I don’t see how that thing can be who I really am.
That’s the good news for me in all this. Because I think a lot of us can also find our identity in our traumas, our wounds, and our limitations. But with inner work, therapy, and loving kindness, many of those things can fall away, as well.
You may have been angry your whole life, but you can learn to recognize your triggers and see them for the hurts and wounds that they are, and begin to heal. You can let it go, and get closer to your true self.
You may have lived a life of shame for a variety of valid reasons, but through self-love, meditation, and other supportive practices, this too can start to fall away, and get you closer to who you truly are. (I speak this from personal experience.)
And the same goes for our traumas, mental health issues, and a whole variety of other things that may have plagued us for so long that we can barely remember ever existing without their specter looming in the background of our lives.
We all have our ugly bits, our dark areas, but darkness is driven out by shining a light on it. By being honest and vulnerable; with ourselves, and with others, and watching those bits of superfluous material chip off and fall away, and exposing more of the true sculpture underneath.
If all of these things we’ve talked about could be taken away or removed, wouldn’t we still agree that I’m still me? And you’re still you?
So what’s left?
What’s left is something that’s both a lot more familiar to us, but a lot harder to describe, isn’t it?
Some might describe it as a soul, or a spirit. But it feels more simple to me. More pure, and at the same time more beautiful. When I peel back the abilities, the positions, the pain, and the limitations and look deep inside past all that, I see something that looks a lot like love in each one of us.
And I think exposing more of that to this world is worth letting go of all these false identities, isn’t it?