“These precious illusions in my head did not let me down
When I was defenseless
And parting with them is like parting with invisible best friends”
-Alanis Morisette, “Precious Illusions”
“I just want to do the right thing!”
How often have you lamented this to the cruel, unforgiving universe?
When I was a child I loved frisbee. I loved it so much that I soon thought of myself as a “frisbee player.” I knew that no matter what life threw at me, if it was a frisbee, I’d catch it. Though I didn’t know it, this was my first dabbling in attributing my identity to something outside me.
People experience this all the time. I’m Chris, but I’m also a caterer (my job), a single guy (my marital status), a filmmaker (my hobby), and a philosopher (my viewpoint on the world), and a son. But even in Phase 1, none of these things are me. They are simply labels.
Labels are no big deal until they cause you a great deal of discomfort.
So frisbee playing was all well and good until I decided to shift my identity. Now I was the smart guy. The guy who had all the answers. This became a persona over the years that sparkled, burned brightly, then tugged at me unused through the wastes of existential angst. This identity thing was fun when it was just pretend, but now it became dangerous.
So too with the labels, personas, and acts of the nice guy, the asshole, the artist, the traveller, the comedian, the supportive friend, the brilliant child prodigy. Every new identity seemed fresh and congruent and every one ultimately never stood the test of circumstances.
Except for one. Except until now. The last line of defense against an encroaching illusion has been breached.
Each persona had a honeymoon period where it seemed to fit me like a glove. Yet soon, I was always presented with an impossible decision – stay in the persona or do what is right. After the burnt husk of that persona lay smoldering somewhere in the back of my psyche I always returned to, “well at least I did the right thing.” Cue credits. My martyrdom was secure. I knew that, whatever happened, no one could ever take my integrity away from me.
Cracking the Egg
This is all well and good until your expanded self starts ripping up the carpet and the floorboards under what you think is real. As my egg cracked open different thoughts started permeating my consciousness. Just like a smart-ass kid in an ethics class would say, “how do you know right from wrong?”
For me it’s just a feeling. My integrity is expressed when I’m faced with a choice. I had a job that paid me well but also disrespected me. Money or respect? Though I said choice, really it’s not a choice. I’m always going to take the path of respect. So I quit the job right there. Why? Because if I don’t have respect then I’m not being true to myself.
It all sounds good. However, as you know, I am not real. So what I’m talking about is subjective truth not absolute truth. Not Truth, but truth. So if the truth is not real, then anything that may be compromising my truth is not real. So too for my respect and my integrity.
“Wait a minute!” says my ego. “I’m a good person! I do the right thing.”
“I hate to break it to you,” say I, speaking for my expanded self. “But you’re not a good person, nor are you a bad person. And you don’t do the right thing. Nor do you do the wrong. You just do. You just are. And it is perfect.”
My identity of integrity, a solid rock in the uncompromising chaos of the universe, is revealed to be just another illusion. I never had anything to stand for because I never stood against anything.
And just like that, it left – a shadow self posing as the light.
I was talking with my friend Brett in the Metro Cafe when all of this happened. I felt a subtle shift in everything and as our conversations and awareness deepened, it felt like there was a large cocoon of true joy surrounding us. It’s what I imagine a confession of sin is supposed to actually feel like in church. But this was my confession of limitation.
I saw so many of my past acts, thoughts, and feelings in a different light. And there were many questions.
- How many times did I do something “bad” in the name of “good”?
- How many rash decisions had I made because someone had violated my integrity?
- How many people would I never forgive because they didn’t operate within my standards?
As he saw me slipping into the rabbit hole, he asked me how it felt.
“Great,” I said.
“No. no. Look deeper. How does it feel?”
All of the friendships I’d severed, the jobs I’d quit, the people I’d directed angry thoughts towards.
“It feels terrible.” If these people were just other aspects of me, then I’d cut them out as if I was cutting my own hand off.
Just to serve an idea of who I was that wasn’t really real. So I as I staggered with grief and slowly dripping solace into a dormant ocean of joy, I asked for the first time:
“Who am I really?”
And I sit here waiting for the Truth.
Who are you, really?