The topic of identity keeps popping up in conversations with people in different areas in my life, which signals to me that it’s time to pen my current thoughts on it. Two questions drive this investigation. The first from friends, peers, and colleagues on the brink or in the midst of transition, wondering what will happen to their identity when they find themselves without institutional attachments to define their place in the world. The other comes from within: When we loosen our grip on identity, what takes its place? This is the story of how I journeyed into the Place of Nothing and found my center.
BEING A GOOD STUDENT / ACADEMIC SCHOLAR
The one identity I invested heavily in as I was coming of age was that of the good student. Fueled by my natural curiosity and my ambition to achieve, my intellectual formation became the sun that regulated my boarding school and college years. Mindful of wanting to give myself life experience outside of school, I purposely stalled plans to enter a PhD program, but never fully let go of the identity of being an academic scholar. I regarded this three-year period as merely a “time out” before starting grad school. In so doing, I robbed myself of the opportunity to sink into life outside academia in any meaningful way.
At the time I nurtured a very clear vision of my future as a professor at a liberal arts college. This dream, so vivid it was almost palpable, replayed in my mind’s eye until one day it didn’t. That was the day the light went out. What do you do when the dream dies? My first instinct was to fight it so I spent years in grad school swimming upstream. I wasn’t wise about much then, but at least I had the good sense to realize after awhile that being chronically unhappy was not for me.
My next tactic was to tweak the Life Plan ever so slightly so I could still keep my identity intact: If I didn’t want to be a college professor, maybe I wanted to be a high school teacher. Or maybe work in a museum! Or a nonprofit? Doing vaguely good things for the world…? I’d spent my whole life being the person who always had her shit together, the one walking sure-footed toward a bright future, but it was time to admit I was not only lost, but hopeless.
THE PLACE OF NOTHING
After years of swimming upstream trying to revive my dying dream of being a college professor, and a couple more years treading water in an attempt to prop up the ghost of that dream, I finally considered Plan C: surrendering to the gaping abyss that had been yawning before me. By that time I was so depleted that I was beyond drowning.
And so I sank. And sank,
What I discovered is that if you allow yourself to get deep enough, eventually you reach what feels like the Place of Nothing. And what’s remarkable about the Place of Nothing is how quiet it is, how still. I found that if I just relaxed, I could actually breathe underwater. And since it had been a long while since I’d given myself the chance to catch a breath, I gave myself over to the calm.
THE SECRET PATH OPENS
As meditators know, it is the breath that brings us back to center. In the Place of Nothing I reacquainted myself with both. In the stillness I collected myself and took stock of what I absolutely knew I loved doing, what I still dreamed of doing, and what I had going in my favor. I knew I had to keep learning and teaching, I knew I still wanted to work with young people, and I knew that I was sharp, resourceful, and gifted in a classroom setting. I also started sensing that what was missing in grad school was heart.
In this state of clarity I heard my husband remark that his mentoring group had no idea how to prepare their young people for adulthood. These youth were in foster care, and their mentors were sometimes the only consistent adult presences in their lives. Presented with this problem, something inside me lit up once more, and within months I found myself holding space for New York City’s most vulnerable youth to discover who they were and who they wanted to become.
I was able to invent my dream job once I’d fully let go of old dreams and identities.
THE GIFT OF THE BLANK SPACE
PhDs without academic appointments have this great big fear of attending conferences and donning a name tag with a whole lot of blank space on it in the absence of any institutional affiliation. I had a similar terror of not being a “real person” because I didn’t have a business card to hand out in professional and semi-professional events.
What I want to suggest—what I keep reminding myself during transitional periods—is that this blank space is a great gift if, rather than resisting it, we choose to embrace it. The blank space leaves room for mystery and surprise. How sad that we are so accustomed to being penned into safe little boxes that when change brings radical freedom we face the realm of pure possibility with shame and terror.
There’s this really pervasive and pernicious myth that we become somebody through our own efforts. By virtue of working hard we “make something of ourselves.” What I keep relearning is that it is precisely when I stop striving and simply let myself be that I begin to sense my truth. I’m not saying that this is the easiest way to find yourself. Sinking into the Nothing is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you are used to a life of doing, simply being is incredibly challenging. Here be dragons. Learn to ride yours.
WE ARE WHAT’S BORN IN THE DARK
Under the auspices of modern medicine, the sacred rite of birth is held under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, but for times of rebirth my imagination reaches back to primordial memories of women gathered in darkness to welcome new life. When we don’t automatically invest it with dread, darkness can be a comforting blanket.
Darkness is also symbolic of our growing edge. Overcoming fear is expansive of the self. We dream and scheme under the cover of night, and from the shadows we emerge anew. We are what’s born in the dark.