I was having dinner with friends when the conversation quickly turned to politics. As a motley crew of differing experiences and opinions, it didn’t take long for a passionate argument to break out (especially after a few drinks had given some of us false courage). I sat back and listened to my friends loudly exchange views, observing how the energy of the entire table shifted from jovial to defensive. Every disagreement was taken as a personal attack. Feelings got hurt and the somber silence that pierced the room after the last shots were fired sobered us all up.
As I drove home that night, I wondered why we were all unable to talk about important things without becoming angry. Our egos were so attached to certain labels and ideas that we couldn’t separate our identities from it. Deeply wounded, our egos tried to protect and defend themselves through negative reactions like yelling, crying, or retreating. As I passed a car completely covered with bumper stickers like “My cat is a Democrat!” and “Yale Dad,” I couldn’t help but wonder if all these labels we stick on ourselves are really just cover-ups for who we actually are.
Political labels are just one of the many bumper stickers we plaster on ourselves, but it got me thinking about what other things I falsely identify with. When I got home that night, I made a list of all the words I use to define myself. I didn’t realize that I had spent nearly an hour coming up with over a hundred words scribbled frantically across multiple pages of my notebook–words like “ Environmentalist, Runner, Writer, Vegetarian, Feminist, American.” Then there were names and places and past experiences that I still heavily identified with, some positive and some extremely negative. I realized I was still carrying the weight of past relationships, mistakes, and pain that I had subconsciously attached myself to. The list went on and on until I felt like there was nothing more to write about myself. At the same time, I knew something huge was missing. These words didn’t seem to accurately capture who I was. As I read them out loud, they sounded empty and superficial. I felt like that minivan covered with bumper stickers and wondered if that’s how other people saw me–as someone hiding under an ambush of labels.
We live in a society that constantly tries to label and compartmentalize everything. That isn’t to say that all labels are inherently bad–being able to name certain things can be very empowering and help us realize we are not alone. Words can be powerful tools for understanding our personality and behavioral patterns, but they are in no way representative of our inner being. The problem now is that we’re more concerned with defining than being. As a writer, my initial instinct is to give a name to everything–every thought, emotion, experience, I want to describe through words. When I can’t find the right ones, I grow frustrated and disappointed. As I tried to capture my true essence, I couldn’t think of a single noun or adjective that accurately described me because there isn’t one. I am not a noun or an adjective. I’m not an -ist. I can’t fit into an Instagram bio or dating profile. My inner state cannot be defined, it is only something that can be felt. Every now and then I get brief, beautiful glimpses of that perfect state through meditation. Sometimes when I’m in nature I feel it; sometimes it comes just from listening to a certain song. We’ve all had those encounters where we meet ourselves and experience the joy of simply existing, but worldly distractions pull us away from that state. Leaning to disassociate from these distractions is challenging, especially in today’s world of social media, political upheaval, and consumerism. If we stopped buying into these distractions, society as we know it could not exist.
Whenever I grow defensive, I ask myself why I am reacting that way. It’s usually because my ego feels threatened and desperately needs to prove that it’s right. I’ve damaged many relationships this way and I’m guessing some of you also have. Telling my ego to take a backseat has not been easy, but it has made my life a lot less stressful. Our minds have tricked us into believing that we are our ego, which is why we feel the constant need to identify with the outside world. The more we remind ourselves that we are not bumper stickers, the more we can connect with our true and eternal Self.
What labels do you falsely identify with? What do you look like when you take them away? How do you untangle yourself from the ego’s webs?
A permanent hangnail,
a loose tooth my tongue can’t stop poking—
the question tickles the back of my brain until I scratch so hard it bleeds.
I laugh at myself for trying to measure infinity in teaspoons,
for enslaving myself to words like
“daughter” or “American” or “Pisces.”
I became my own shadow,
a shape-shifting silhouette in a hurry to read the last page of an unwritten book.
In drunkenness I find clarity
that is perhaps too obvious to see—
a child’s laughter as ice cream drips down his chin,
dewdrops on the baseball field before sunrise,
the homeless man who feeds pigeons in the park…
Scientists don’t know why Venus spins backwards
(does she even know?)
I remind myself to stop searching for Atlantis.