On the possibility of integrating past identities

I’ve been thinking about the difference between trying to let go of past identities I’ve held dear, vs somehow integrating them.

An example of a past identity: throughout my high school and college years I obsessed about becoming a climbing bum, and then spent another several years attempting to live out that dream in Yosemite and Joshua Tree amongst the climbers I used to read about in magazines. It never really felt right, and to be fair, I did a lot more hanging out with climbers than I did actual climbing. I hesitate to mention to people that I ever “was” a climber — even though it was very much my thing, for thirteen years! — because I’ve learned that people who are into climbing get very excited to attach all sorts of ideas onto me that didn’t even fit back then.

Still, I cannot deny the Climber in me. Whenever my body touches stone, or uses its fingers and limbs to pull the rest of my body upward, I am overcome with a strong sense of knowing: THIS is what this body was born to do.

Is that true though? I cannot remember the last time my body did any such thing.

At another point in my life, I spent hours of each and every day riding my mountain bike all over Mt Tam. Does that mean I “was” a mountain biker? I lugged my fancy mountain bike from Bolinas to Sacramento to San Francisco and back to Bolinas. By the time I finally shipped it in the container to New Zealand with all the rest of our stuff, I hadn’t used the thing in years. Eventually I sold it to one of the used bike places here in Auckland. Was that the point at which I ceased to “be” a mountain biker?

I kept my road bike, which I also used to ride all over Marin County, or on short commutes around San Francisco; my favorite rides were with colleagues before work, when we’d head over the Golden Gate Bridge and climb Marin Headlands before returning to the office. I regularly commuted by bike to my office in Auckland until I hit a car in a roundabout and got a bit skittish. I still get on that bike occasionally, but it takes longer and longer to figure out where I left the key to its lock. I don’t call myself a cyclist anymore.

Other identities I’ve held for shorter or longer periods of time: traveler, naturist,  polyamorist, trail runner. Every time I write a new bio I delete the identities that no longer ring true, keep the ones that do (ocean lover, yoga practitioner, writer), and decide which new ones are worthy of inclusion (partner, Buddhist, immigrant to New Zealand).

Attaching to — and then letting go of, or integrating — identities associated with work I get paid to do feels a lot more complicated. Prep chef, field scientist, publisher, part-time farmer, entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, community financing expert, author, consultant, coach, international podcast host, YouTube small business influencer.

At the moment I’m experiencing no small amount of suffering because of an attachment I have to a professional identity that does not, for instance, order catering, book flights, assign people the use of a certain room at a certain time, and then let them into it, apologizing that someone else had not left it clean. Why shouldn’t I do those things? So what if I have an MBA and think of myself as “above” such tasks? What does my resistance to doing such things say about any unconscious judgment of people whose jobs do involve doing those things, and “worse”?

I keep remembering a talk from the late Michael Stone, on the topic of Not Picking & Choosing. Accepting what is: “oh, this is what it’s like to order catering.” I’m not that enlightened yet. Despite everything I’m learning about the value of equanimity, I still experience strong preferences. A strong sense of who I am and where I draw the lines. More problematic, I cannot stop trying to mold the world to cater to my preferences.

I would like to somehow invite all my identities, past and future, and all their likes and dislikes, to come along on this next phase of the journey. Give each of them space to make some noise, make their demands, complain, resist, or do whatever they need to do in the face of their perceived threats. Perhaps then they might feel seen enough to relax into the whole, to accept whatever comes next. Without needing to label it “good” or “bad” or anything other than What Is, events and happenings to simply notice with kind curiosity, and a sense that no matter who we are, collectively, these identities and I, we can handle this.

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