Life and Habit
Most of us think we love variety, but if we’re honest, we really don’t. If you want a validation of this truth, try waking up in a room where you don’t know how you got there and can’t see anything. That anxiety you feel? That’s the abrupt, non-consentual withdrawal of the familiar, i.e., comfortable habit. When we look in the mirror, we hope to see what we expect, nothing more or less, because expectation and predictability are the essence of identity.
An identity acquired (mostly) through habit and habits of thought. Habits usually instilled without us being aware of them. But even if you are aware, or even consciously cultivating habit, most of us become servants of those habits. Often, those habits of thought are drummed into us by a sarcastic teacher, a bully on the grammar school playground or a hyper-critical parent.
Almost as common are those assigned to us by well-intentioned friends who pidgeonhole us with admiring words, telling us we do this or that better than anything else. Their words aren’t generally hurtful and aren’t intended to be. But often, the first step down the “wrong” trail has it’s origins in a well-meant observation coming from a place of sincere admiration. But because we value their opinion or want to please, we are subtly affected. It’s true in our friend’s mind so it becomes true in ours.
"I woke up one day, and had no idea who I was..."
We take that chance observation that feels true and run with it, whether it’s about a hypothetical vocational talent, or a personality trait that suggests with whom we might be a good fit as a partner, we buy into a truth that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we’re even moderately self-driven and of normal intelligence, we make it work and may go years , perhaps even decades without seriously questioning whatever notion our friend or our own perceptions lodged in our minds.
But, as they say, shit happens. Times change and so do we. Irrespective of how it develops, a future emerges, informing us (sometimes not too subtly) that who/what we thought we were has evolved, Or perhaps it was never really true. We just made it work. Whichever applies, we find ourselves in a place/identity that no longer fits, or is no longer tenable from a purely practical perspective. We wake up one day and realize there’s something new in the mirror. Or maybe it was there all along, but we’re just now becoming aware of it.
This dynamic seems like it’s becoming a thing, in the second decade of the 21st Century. As the rate of change ratchets up to what the Tofflers once dubbed as Future Shock, increasing numbers of us find we need to circle back to a point when a fateful decision bent us along a certain path that, in retrospect, no longer suits us. We are squarely in the midst of a personal shift eroding not simply our place in life, but the fundamental underpinnings that have always helped us define who we are at the deepest visceral levels.
In the mythology of self-help, few things are set in stone or irreversible. And we don’t have to look too far to find examples of men and women who have succeeded in redefining themselves in profound, even startling ways. These examples give credence to the ethos of self-reinvention in the name of evolution.
The back-button doesn't work...
What those examples don’t tell us is the often superhuman self-discipline it took to redefine themselves. There is, after all, a lot of intertia that keeps us heading in the same direction. Even when we make a conscious choice to break with a past/identity that no longer fits, those who know us continue to relate to us as though nothing has changed.
It can feel for all the world feels like an endless feedback loop, in which we are doomed like Sisyphus to roll the old identity up the same social hill, only to have it roll back on top of us, as we strive for that new us. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to sort out where precisely you got off track, or how to back track to take the “right” path. The back-button just doesn’t work.
In the hopeful mythology of self-help, few things are set in stone or irreversible. And we don’t have to look too far to find examples of men and women who have succeeded in redefining themselves in profound, even startling ways. These examples give credence to the ethos of self-reinvention in the name of evolution. It’s a seductive possibility and make no mistake, it is possible. But there are complications.
We need a new identity. Not for the purposes of income tax evasion or avoidance of child support payments. We need it because who we were before no longer fits who we are becoming. If the back-button doesn’t work, we’re going to have to start if not from scratch, at least from a place where we can undo some of the programming that brought us to where we are now. Our psychic <Control+Alt+Delete>, if you will.
We should probably recognize going in that it isn’t going to be easy. Not only do we have to overcome our own habits, we have to reprogram those of our friends, family and co-workers, at least insofar as they affect us moving forward. We should expect they’ll fight us most of the way, until (in the case of friends and family) the see that we were right—or mostly, anyway.
But ultimately, it’s from our old selves that we must escape. As outlined in the introduction to Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives:
“Truth is a shapeshifter. Sometimes it slams into us, changing everything in an eye-blink. But more often, truth arrives camouflaged in the ordinary, its significance becoming clear only after reflection. We are at once our own jailers and the authors of our freedom, streaking toward a destiny, lurking just beyond our headlights.”