Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fixed Identities

"The root of fundamentalist tendencies, these dogmatic tendencies, is a fixed identity - a fixed view we have of ourselves as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, this or that. With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn't always conform to our view ... That's what it means to be in denial: you can't hear anything that doesn't fit into your fixed identity. Even something positive - you're kind or you did a great job or you have a wonderful sense of humor - is filtered through this fixed identity. You can't take it in unless it's already part of your self-definition."
~ Pema Chödrön

Following on yesterday's post in which I wrote about how fundamentalism nourished my desire for certainty, I also found the above quote to be tremendously insightful and meaningful for me. 

I have excelled at creating fixed identities for myself during my life, and I have had a lot of help from others in so doing. Examples: dutiful son; "the responsible one"; Mormon father; Mormon husband; not athletic; secretly gay man who was deeply ashamed of my essential nature; angry one; rigid one; constantly lacking, never good enough.

Unfortunately, a lot of these identities were based on a basic negative perception of myself. As Chödrön notes, I have had great difficulty in believing it when people compliment me because I have trained myself or been trained to think of myself in negative ways. 

One example of this has to do with my athleticism. I had trained myself to believe, and had adopted the fixed-identity while yet in my youth to support this belief, that I am not an athletic person. Like many, many other gay men during, before and after my generation, I told myself that I could not be athletic, for athletes and guys who did sports were straight. And I was not. And so I adopted an identity to reflect that belief.

I had maintained this identity all my life. Even when I started running 13 years ago, I could never pat myself on the back for what I was doing. No one had ever called me a "natural athlete" until I met Mark. Of course, I still really didn't believe that, even after he told me so on several occasions. I could not accept - truly accept - compliments that I was given last fall on our cycling tour by experienced cyclists who couldn't believe that this was my first season. Most recently, reference was made (while on the Marin County Century by an experienced young cyclist) to my legs as "monster legs." 

All of this flies in the face of what I have told myself about myself for decades.

This is just one example of a fixed identity. There are many.

Of course, I also see this in others, some quite close to me. People who have invested so very much in their fixed identity that they have to " ... busy [them]selves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn't always conform to [their] view." They cannot see *reality* and as a result, cause great damage to themselves as well as to others.

Much of my adult life experience has been directly and dramatically influenced by the 27 years I spent within the Mormon Church - an institution that excels in creating and fostering fixed identities. Good. Bad. Worthy. Unworthy. Righteous. Unrighteous. Mormonism is a very rigid, dualistic belief system that is "other-directed" and that encourages rejection of whatever doesn't fit within the parameters of the system, creating both individual fixed-identities as well as a collective fixed-identity. Example: "righteous" persons who cannot allow themselves to tolerate others who don't hold their views because doing so - in such persons' minds - challenges their fixed identity of being righteous.

In spiritual terms, fixed identities cut us off from whom we really are. Chödrön notes that, as we begin to examine our fixed identities, we come to see - among other things - how attached we are to our opinions of ourselves. For fixed identities provide the illusion of certainty. "The purpose of the spiritual path," writes Chödrön, "is to unmask, to take off our [fixed-identity] armor." This can be a scary process, provoking what Chödrön calls a fixed identity crisis. But beyond that crisis lies the pathway to truth.

Some of the greatest joys I have experienced during the past 2-3 years, and especially lately, have come from realizing that I am NOT the person others told me I am or that I told myself I am. Paradoxically, after being a religious person most of my life (when I objectively should have been able to consider myself "good"), it has only been lately that I have been able to truly start seeing myself as "good" as opposed to "bad." As a good father as opposed to a bad father. As a kind person as opposed to an angry, selfish person. As a loving and lovable person, as opposed to an unloving and unlovable person.

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." 

~ Jesus

"Knowledge is learning something every day.
Wisdom is letting go of something every day."

~ Zen Proverb


  1. Joseph,

    This is a fascinating topic and one with which I readily identify, having had life experiences similar to what you have described of your own.
    Exploration into this realm of the self, while demanding, has to be essential if we are to free our true selves from the bonds of identity that falsely define us.

    Matthew Arnold put it this way:

    "Resolve to be thyself; and know that he who finds himself, loses his misery."

    And speaking of the marvelously insightful Matthew Arnold, such a study would benefit by a careful reading of his poem “The Buried Life”. An excerpt -

    "The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
    But they course on for ever unexpress'd.
    And long we try in vain to speak and act
    Our hidden self, and what we say and do
    Is eloquent, is well--but 'tis not true!"

    Anyway, thanks for introducing this important discussion.


  2. Gary - I *always* appreciate your insightful comments and your wealth of knowledge and familiarity with the world of poetry. I loved your phrase, "free our true selves from the bonds of identity that falsely define us."

    And THANK YOU for introducing "The Buried Life"! I loved the excerpt you quoted and have just looked up the poem and scanned over it, vowing to carve out a space of time to sit in a quiet spot and read the whole thing reflectively.

    Thanks, Gary. Hope things are well and happy in your life.