Identity: it’s what makes us who we are. We’re men, women, millennials, Baby Boomers, Americans, Italian-Americans, marathon runners, Libras, extroverts—the list goes on. There are numerous labels we slap on our souls to describe who we are, but sometimes those labels do more than just describe us. Often, we decide that they define us, and once we define ourselves through a label, it’s hard to see ourselves in any other way.
If the runner has been a runner his whole life, who is he when his joints begin to ache and he can no longer run? When the painter never gets her big break, who is she? After the teacher retires, is she still a teacher?
It’s important for individuals to find a place in the world, leave a mark, and have a purpose. It’s also important for individuals not to become defined by these identities; instead, to allow identity to grow and change.
Often, our stuff plays a major role in who we think we are and how we see ourselves. That runner who no longer runs? He might be clinging to his trophies and medals to show that he is still a runner. The artist might hold on to all her paints to prove she’s an artist. The retired teacher never lets go of the teaching strategy textbooks she owns to display her dedication to teaching.
I used to save all of my journals—10 gallon rubber bins full—to prove that I started writing when I was in first grade. I used to save all the sketchbooks from grade school and high school to prove I was an artist (even though they were not very good sketches). But then I realized a few things:
- The stories I wrote when I was a kid can be scanned and saved on my computer, and from there saved on external hard drives, so I really can never lose them.
- The journals I wrote as a kid were cute, but more embarrassing than they were profound. There was nothing there that I could send off to child psychologists to help them figure out children better. And, quite frankly, there was nothing I wanted my future children to read.
- My sketchbooks were just that: sketches that I created mindlessly, nothing I worked on for years. It would be like saving every scrap of paper I doodled on.
- Even if I recycled those sketchbooks and journals, it didn’t mean I stopped being a writer or an artist.
Just because you throw out (or recycle) the trophies you’ve accumulated or the dried old paint you’ve stored, doesn’t mean your identity is tossed out with it.
You are not your stuff.
You are not the labels you’ve assigned yourself or the labels others have assigned for you.
You are you, made up of many growing, changing parts. And there’s nothing physical that can accurately define who you are.
So, don’t worry about throwing out that folder of A+ papers—it doesn’t mean your legacy as a straight A student will be forgotten. Fear not if you donate your costumes and stage makeup, it doesn’t mean your years on the stage were in vain.
If you donate or toss your grandmother’s casserole dishes and stained doilies, it does not mean you are no longer your grandmother’s granddaughter, or that she will stop loving you. Her memories and her love do not reside in that casserole dish; they reside in you.
You are not your stuff. Let it go, and open up your physical and mental world to the possibility of growth and change.
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