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Mountain Musings Episode 1: Identity

I have had this idea for a while. I hike a lot. It is kinda my thing. I realized a while back that every time I go out to hike alone my mind gets directed toward deep thought. There is something about being out in nature and exercising that clears my mind and enables me to think about things more clearly. So it only stands to reason that it is a context in which I would want to ponder and talk about bigger topics and issues. So I decided to publicize those thoughts. I went and hiked Tam MacCarthur Rim Trail outside of Sisters, Oregon and discussed with myself, my dog, and the camera my thoughts about the topic of identity. Attached to this post is the video I made about it, and this blog post is, in a way, the transcription of that video. Feel free to either watch or read or both.

I suppose for organization sake, the first thing I should do is define "identity," or at least what I mean when I am talking about it for this post. Let's call it this: the collections of ideas, activities, objectives, and philosophies that one uses to define oneself. So yeah. That tells you nothing about what it means. I'm personally a visual learner and this imagery helps me think about it. Imagine a pie chart divided into any number of slices with varying proportions of the whole. Each slice represents something that you value. Either something you love to do, a characteristic you represent or hope to represent, an idea or philosophy you live by, a group you belong to, an image you convey to the world. For example, my pie chart consists of these things and more: I love to hike, I am a dog owner, I feel strongly about interpersonal relationships and family, I am a Christian, I live in a car. The summation of these things comprise my identity.

Hopefully you have a good grasp on what I mean when I use that word now. In my mind things like happiness or joy are directly proportional to the stability of the things that comprise our pie chart. So for example, imagine you are in a romantic relationship and to you that relationship takes up a significant portion of that identity pie chart. Now say that relationship goes south and you experience what we traditionally refer to as "heartbreak." I see heartbreak as a function of the instability in that relationship. The emotional pain associated with heartbreak is, in part, a pain that stems from a rupture in your identity. This has been referred to for a long time as an Identity Crisis (hey thats an album/song from my favorite band Thrice!) and I think that is a perfect way to describe it. Identity crises can take many forms other than heartbreak but that is an easy one to pinpoint because all of us have either experienced it or seen someone else experience it. Other versions of identity crises might be things like loss of a job, loss of a family member, or loss of ability to do something you once loved.

With that in mind, I think there are a couple threats to our identity, a couple things that put us at risk of having one of these identity crises. First, I think that putting too great of weight on one slice of your identity pie causes our identity to be in jeopardy. For example, if half of my pie chart is comprised of my job as a civil engineer and then I get laid off by my firm, it will be more painful, more difficult to recover from, and more confusing than if it was only a 10% portion of my identity. The other threat is society's expectation of what our identity should be in relation to what we actually want our identity to be. I have a personal example of how this has created an identity crisis for me in the past. There is, in Christian culture, this implicit expectation to get married and have kids in your mid twenties. I, as a Christian, adopted that expectation for myself and lodged a wedge of it into my personal identity pie chart without a lot of thought as to whether or not that's what I wanted or if that was the right fit for me. Now that isn't necessarily a bad hope to have, but it's something that my particular subset of society has expected of me and I didn't have a lot of control over. When I passed through my early twenties, into my mid twenties, and sailed straight through the late twenties and into thirty, I had to eventually come to terms with the fact that I never met that expectation. It was a painful process of coming to grips with the fact that that particular thing might not be meant for me. I didn't have a healthy identity in that regard.

So how do I, or you, or your sister in law develop a "healthy" identity? Well, let me first preface this with this: I am not a qualified or licensed counselor and don't pretend to have a full understanding of what it means to have good mental health. If you are experiencing extreme difficulty with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, the best course of action is to seek professional help from someone who knows how to deal with it. These things I am speaking of are simply my experiences with identity and the best way I have learned to deal with them. Ok that is out of the way. Here is what I think a healthy identity pie chart looks like. First, it's varied. The pie chart is not made up of two or three significant slices, it is made up of dozens. That way if one thing falls through you still have many legs to stand on. The age old adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket fits perfectly in this scenario. The other method of developing a healthy identity is rooting your identity in things that are generally stable. For many people including myself, family is a stable fixture and a good place to set your identity. Avoid fluctuating things like finances, fashion, trends etc. I don't mean to say those things cannot be part of your identity at all. Simply that those things, relied on too heavily can collapse and leave you with a crisis of identity.

My final thought on the topic is that it is fine for your identity to change. I think it is absolutely insane that we expect politicians to have made the right voting choices for 40 years as if the world hasn't changed. The same goes for you and I. Our lives change and there are many unpredictable circumstances and to expect us to hold things at the same value when we are 18 and when we are 65 is insane. Change your identity. Change it to match what you have learned. To reflect the new life experiences you have had. Nearly nothing in this world is certain (except death and taxes according to B. Franklin or some other dead guy, I can't remember). You shouldn't be expected to be certain all the time either. I sure as hell am not.

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