“I saw you with a bike the other day. Is that your thing?”
This was what a colleague of mine asked me recently. We were talking about fitness and the challenge of staying active at a desk job. When he asked me about my bike I didn’t know how to respond because I took his question to be far more existential than he intended. I should have asked what he meant by my “thing.” But whatever I said next I was half paying attention to as I pondered my own identity.
And this speaks to a larger issue I’ve had throughout my life: Seeking to create my own unique identity while at the same time trying to connect with others. Having a “thing” generally hasn’t been my thing.
I am sure I overthink it more than most, and that is rarely helpful.
In 5th grade, I religiously read the morning sports section to memorize all of the basketball players on the Phoenix Suns because I was a Suns fan. And being a fan of a team meant I should know all the players in case the other kids at school made fun of me for liking a team just because they were in first place.
Spoiler alert, kids aren’t looking to be proven wrong. They made fun of me anyway.
Sports is this unique identifier in the life of men. It is the common language we share when we are younger. It is something we participate in, obsess over, and argue about. To not have an opinion is to be left out. To have the wrong opinion is to be cast out.
In college I had conversations about our school’s football team with other guys I knew, sharing my limited knowledge only to have my opinion immediately contradicted by somebody who knew far more. How much time did they spend learning, reading, watching? Despite my best efforts I never achieved the same fluency. Probably because I was interested, but not obsessive.
As I get older I spend less and less time watching and following sports. The wins and losses are less interesting to me than the human stories. I still enjoy watching and going to games but I am less aware of what is happening on a week to week basis. And I’m much more OK with that than I used to be. Mainly because I used to worry about what other men would think about me. And now, at least when it comes to sports, I generally don’t care.
That is not to say I do not value the feeling of belonging. Quite the opposite. I have struggled with a sense of belonging my entire life so when the opportunity presents itself, I am almost cat-like about it, especially if I am skeptical.
Whenever I go to yoga and the teacher says “morning yogis” I cringe inside. I don’t feel like a yogi. I don’t want to be a yogi. I am merely there as a part of a fruitless quest to one day touch my toes. And while I’m sure my teacher’s intent is meant to make us feel welcome and accepted, it still feels artificial to me.
And while I lift weights, ride a bike, and hike, I wouldn’t consider myself a weightlifter, cyclist, or a hiker. There is a totality in those titles that I think I resist. I am those things at the times that I am doing them but I wonder at what point those activities become lenses through which I see the world. Maybe it is instantaneous. Maybe it is never.
Part of my hesitation is the fragility of it all. Deriving identity from an external source, be it a sport, a job, or even a person, means I am dependent on something other than myself to keep my identity (an identity that never feels fully formed) intact. And if that other thing changes, well then, what does that say about my identity?
I never want to be only my possessions, my activities or my beliefs. I spend so much time thinking about who I am inside, it can handicap me from connecting to, well, anything. I also know from experience, what I identify with ultimately makes demands of me. When I go too long without writing I feel like a bad writer, or more specifically uncommitted.
And being a “writer” is something I readily embrace. It might be because I love writing so much. It took me a long time to call myself a writer in the first place. Perhaps in the age of “I-did-this-thing-once-so-I-am-now-this-thing-hyphenate-titles” I was weary to call myself a writer when I hadn’t published a book, written an article for a major magazine, or done something that justified (in my eyes) such a title.
And the first time I did refer to myself as a writer (on the roof of a hostel in Buenos Aires to a bunch of strangers I was trying to impress) it felt like putting on an expensive fur coat for the first time. It impressed people but I acted like I had been wearing it for years.
I don’t talk about myself as a writer. I don’t start my sentences “as a writer.” But I do talk about my writing. And I think that’s my point (at least I hope it is). We spend so much time classifying, defining who we are. I would rather spend my time doing, and let other people worry about misclassifying me. I want to connect with my activities in the moment and obsess less about a disconnect that leaves me adrift in a sea of incongruence.
What I do informs me, yes. As do my thoughts, feelings, behaviors and other inputs I barely understand. I work on who I am daily. I spend my time somewhere between curiosity and confusion, but still, end up less interested in identity as a final destination. I am much more interested in the continuous exploration of who I am, of who we all are.
Maybe that is my thing.
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