Yesterday I was sitting around with a group of friends and I asked them about their heroes. My exact question was:
Out of all famous people—living or dead, fictional or real—who do you feel most strongly drawn to and why?
One friend immediately piped up. “Ellen Degeneres,” she said. “Because she’s warm and approachable. She makes me feel like it’s okay to be myself.” Then she paused. “And Mick Jagger,” she added. “Because he’s a free spirit. He doesn’t need anyone else’s approval.”
The life we live has everything to do with our identity. Sometimes this is obvious—the person living with a wealthy, educated identity has a very different experience than the person living with a disadvantaged, resource-poor identity. But identity works in ways infinitely more subtle than this. We choose not to strike up a conversation with a stranger because we identify as an introvert. Or we choose the green dress over the blue one because we identify as someone who has green as a favorite color.
Identity is the way we orient ourselves in the world, and overall it’s a very good thing. The problems crop up when we assume that we have a “fixed” identity and we forget to examine our hearts and minds on an ongoing basis to see if that identity needs updating.
I got sucked into looking at old photo albums last weekend.
As I flipped through the glossy pages I leaned closer to examine this young woman in all the pictures. Was that really me? I could hardly believe it. Twelve years ago I was a party girl living in Seattle with no attachments. I was posed with people I haven’t talked to in years, wearing clothes that I wouldn’t dream of wearing today. My only goal in life at that time was to get myself to the bar every night.
For many years it was my dream to be a famous writer. Like, a REALLY famous writer. My idol was Jack Kerouac, and while that was partly because I loved the beauty of his writing (and still do) it was also because of the recognition he achieved. Never mind the fact that fame only contributed to his tragic downward spiral, that’s a story for another day. The point is that I wanted what he had—status, notoriety, and success.
In 2006 I was living in San Francisco, working at a private detective agency, and thinking about picking up writing again. I had moved to San Francisco in 2004 and I had quit drinking in 2005. For the past couple of years I had felt lost and confused. I didn’t really know what to do with myself if alcohol wasn’t going to be a major part of my life. I’d used it for a long time to numb myself and block my emotions—especially those emotions I felt around writing.