Traveling Light: Letting Go of Identity

Photo by  Aurelie Tack  on  Unsplash

Did any of your relatives become “collectors” in the 80s and 90s? It doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal as it used to be, but I remember my mom and her friends doing this. When we would get ready to shop for Christmas or birthdays, my mom would list names and the different collections: “She collects owls. She collects cotton art. She collects strawberries. She collects pencils. She has all Coca Cola stuff in her kitchen. She collects Mickey Mouse stuff.”

I was thinking about this "collection culture" recently and had a few questions:

What happened when you couldn't find an owl to give your aunt?

What happened when you had enough owls?

Did you say, “I appreciate the collector's edition decorative owl plates, but I have plenty, thanks"?

Or, let’s take a favorite drink, like sweet tea. You love sweet tea. You have sweet tea sayings on your back porch. You always offer sweet tea in your home. You make fun of unsweet tea people. You sing SWEET TEA the loudest on country songs. You get in heated debates on the merits of Chicken Express versus Chick-fil-a sweet tea.

And then, you get diabetes.

Do you switch to *gasp* unsweet tea? Do you just dump huge cups of icy cold McAllister’s sweet tea from a friend who knows you love sweet tea but hasn’t heard you’ve been trying to quit? Do you stop wearing your sweet tea shirts and take down your painted sweet tea signs made from pallet wood? What do you do?

Is sweet tea a part of your identity?

The reason why I've been asking these kinds of questions is because I'm still rattling around these words from James Clear's Atomic Habits in my brain:

“The more sacred an idea is to us — that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity — the more strongly we defend it against criticism. The tighter we cling to an identity, the harder it becomes to grow beyond it.”

I used to think that having hard and fast opinions would make me seem cute and quirky, so that when a boy fell in love with me, he would be all, “Kelly always smells like cucumbery-melons. She never eats crunchy peanut butter, and she has a righteous anger about the Oxford comma that I find adorable.”

Here’s the thing: Smells are 100% manufactured by the beauty industry, so we are all dependent on market trends. Crunchy peanut butter is gross on a sandwich but great on an apple. And once I found out that newspapers never used the Oxford comma anyway because, most of the time, the “and” serves as a perfectly fine separator for a list on its own, I’ve become less annoyed by it.

The truth is hard and fast opinions about things might just mean that we are inflexible. And when we have a chance to do something different, then it might be hard to let go of those things because they have become a part of our identity.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have opinions or not voice our preferences, but when we allow ideas and things we like today to become a part of our whole identity, well, then those things are harder to separate from our identity when we need to release them.

For instance, I was a school teacher for the first part of my career. Then, I was an editor. Then, a stay-at-home mom, then a boy mom, then just a mom again because I had a daughter. Then, a homeschool mom. Then, a hand lettering artist. Then, a children’s minister. Then, a freelance writer and editor. Then, a working mom. Then, an ESL teacher. You get the idea; I've worn a lot of hats.

When I transitioned from teaching full time to being at home full time, I had a hard time saying, “I stay at home with my kids.” I would instead say, “I was a high school English teacher for five years, but now I stay at home.” I wanted people to know, subconsciously, that I was smart. (People thinking I’m dumb is my greatest insecurity in case you need to leverage my weaknesses for something.)

Anyway, I finally learned to shrug off that “I used to be a high school English teacher part” of my introductions. I released the identity of that. I’m currently working on releasing the identity of my family being a homeschooling family. We aren’t planning on giving up homeschooling as of yet, but my kids are getting older, and they are going to have more opinions about their education in the coming years. I’m releasing the idea that we are #homeschoolers so that my kids don’t feel the need to see homeschooling as an identity. I don’t need to have homeschool mom as part of my identity either. I mean, I won’t be one forever anyway.

The point of James Clear’s statement is that we should only let a very few things be a part of our core identity, so that when life happens, and we need to correct course, we find it easier to drop a habit that no longer serves us well.

So, what does this have to do with God? (You didn't know I was going to go there, did you?)

A lot of us hold onto the God we are taught as kids, and we don’t allow God to become who we need as we grow and change. So then, when life throws a curveball, we might get mad or disappointed with God because of unmet expectations.

Like, if you were a teenage girl in the 90s, you might have believed something like this: "God will send me a husband. He knows the plans he has for me. He wants me to be happy. God will grant me the desires of my heart.”

But then, maybe the guy never came. Or, maybe you thought he was the guy, but really he was narcissistic and abusive. Or, you had the perfect guy, and he died. Or, you met a great guy, started a life with him, and marriage was still really hard anyway.

Does that mean God’s a jerk? That God didn’t hold up his end of the bargain? That God is vengeful? That God doesn’t exist?

No, it means that you might have attached “Match Maker” to God’s identity. And God never really claimed to be that.

What if you had been taught all of your life that if you read the Bible, went to church, and prayed enough, God would grant you happiness? You did all of those things, and then, your dad died of cancer anyway.

That’s not happiness. What’s the deal? Did God renegotiate on his end of the bargain? Did I do something wrong? Did I not pray enough? Did my dad not have faith that he could be healed? What happened?

Well, the truth is, my dad got cancer because of part bum genetics and (probably) part bad environmental conditions. The cancer metastasized, and the drugs didn’t work fast enough to make the cancer stop growing.

God wasn’t punishing anyone. God didn’t remove promises. God never promised that we’d live on earth forever, void of suffering.

I guess what I’m saying is that the God I believe in, the one who is legit and worth believing in, is a God who works for everyone. If the God you believe in doesn’t make sense when you are suffering, then maybe you’ve tacked on some identity markers that God isn’t claiming.

The best litmus test I have found for knowing if I’m putting extra identity markers on God was this quote I read in Jen Hatmaker’s book For the Love:

“If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”

A good Christian will find monetary success.

“If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”

A good Christian is a leader.

“If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”

God always blesses his people with the spouse they desire.

“If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”

God wants us to salute the American flag.

“If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”

Good Christian wives and mothers stay home for their families.

“If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”

I’m not here to do a full exegesis of scripture or hash out all beliefs about God's intentions for us today. I have not the talent nor the willpower. I am here to say that having rigid beliefs about God, based on fear and tradition and our own comfort leaves us open to be defensive, insecure, and unwilling to grow into better versions of ourselves.

Clear follows his quote about identity with this poem:

"Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail."
- Lao Tzu

A disciple of life. That’s where I want to hang out. I want to live with curiosity. I want to recognize good ideas and allow them to shape my thinking. I want to be willing to listen when friends give me good advice.

I will always have a lot of insecurities to fight. But I am willing to learn and shift my thinking as my circumstances change.

I want my identity to be grounded in truth, but adaptable to change as the circumstances of life shift around me. I want to lead in love and know God will already be there.