Whenever we fixate on maintaining a solid static identity, image becomes everything. A teenager begging entry into the cool kids’ clique can’t tell anyone he loves role-playing games. A punk might have a hard time relaxing among the crowd at a hip-hop show. A progressive who suddenly realizes that those kind and considerate people he’s been eating dinner with are in fact Republicans will probably feel a bit uneasy. This solid tendency to identify ourselves strikes us even if we think we’re not into promoting our own image. Then we can’t stand to be surrounded by people who care so much about their goddamn image!
A river doesn’t have this problem. It doesn’t get pissed off if the unknown waters of new experience enter its mouth. The Hudson doesn’t waste its time wishing it were a classier river, like the Seine or the Nile. It doesn’t get angry at the Ganges for having different landscapes along its banks. But we compare our identities constantly, trying to triangulate ourselves with the right interests, preferences, and associations. The real problem is this: the more tightly we trip our constructed identities, the less flexible we are in the face of change and challenge, and so the spectrum of experience that we just can’t accommodate broadens. Our comfort zone constricts, and we become less and less willing to experience anything that occurs even an inch outside what is familiar and acceptable. In the quest for independence of the self, we try to fit ourselves into such a tight box of identity that it becomes a prison, a depressing coffin of frozen self-image.
The problem with the myth of our personal independence—as well as the myth of our permanence—is that it takes a ton of time and energy to continuously fortify the dam of our identity, to make it strong enough to withstand the overwhelming pressure of truth’s fluid nature. Thankfully, reality’s job is to expose the places where our self-image has frozen over. No makeshift dam we can build will last long; the forceful waters of new experience always burst through. But in most moments when our fixed identity is called into question, we miss the message. Instead of seeing that we are much more than the simplistic creations we thought, we just try to rebuild the dam of rigid identity on the basis of familiar habit. We get defensive or we get angry at the critic who called our identity into question. The ego—the state of mind that gets caught up in the myth of solid independence—pollutes the hell out of the river.