Transitions are what most people struggle with. But we can accommodate a lot once it becomes routine. It’s why pig farmers don’t smell pigs. But if we come from where there were no pigs, to where there are pigs, the powerful odour is not really so much powerful –what we’re experiencing is the strong contrast between before and after.
What buffers this contrast for the wise is an ongoing awareness that all of us carry multiple identities within ourselves. A change for one our identities can impact our other identities, but it won’t obliterate every worthwhile aspect of all of them. Grace is provided by remembering that.
As an example, we can come home from a job loss and take it out on our family, or we can come home and seek comfort through them. This does not mean the person seeking comfort does not have painful flares of thought that rocket into them from the professional identity undergoing change. But by keeping our work and family characters relatively separate, we can ensure our reactions to those impacts is to seek solace with loved ones, rather than to blame them for the pain of the impact.
If we wish to express wisdom by becoming more fluid about our transitions, then we must first identify some of our key identities and what there is to appreciate about each one. The major ones are not hard to find. They’ll often even be discernible by their vocabularies and how formal the grammar becomes.
Examples of these tone changes are things like; we speak differently to our parents than to our closest friends; but our friend identity is separate from who we present to our boss; which is again unique from our identity with co-workers; which is yet again unique from the one we show to co-workers who are friends.
I often point out to people that our multiple identities are why weddings are such stressful experiences. We simply cannot be all of those people at once, and yet the collection of wedding guests each come expecting to see the person they know get married. Experiences like that can easily turn a groomsman’s toast into a serious career-limiting event.
As an illustration of the difference between living in the emotional turmoil of ego, versus witnessing our lives from a more sanguine state, imagine we’re all actors. Our ‘life’ is our time on stage. We’re improvising our play, in the moment, with other life-improvisers.
In our play, we play all of the identities/characters that we try to be for our wedding guests. If we get or lose a job, or if we start or end a relationship, that represents a major course-change for one of our identities.
That course change can impact the other identities we have. But the important point is, we continue to have multiple identities. Even if one dies, the others generally live on. Remembering that is a calming force in life.
In the end, what pains us is that our identities are occasionally changing course. Yet, it is that very motion that creates the weave we know as ‘our life.’ What we perceive as ‘problems’ are really demands on our creativity. Without challenges to overcome, our actor has no play to perform in.
The need to find a new path for a particular identity can be quite invigorating and inspiring. But for the most part we tend to suffer because our ego engages in painful ‘wanting thoughts’ about the old identity. And that’s understandable, because being fired, or getting divorced, or having cancer are all identity changes that don’t align with the imagined future our ego vainly wants to return to.
Of course, each of those seemingly ‘bad’ identity changes could easily end up leading a soul to a more rewarding total life experience. Maybe the next job’s better. Maybe we’re prouder of ourselves and our performance in our next relationship. Or maybe having cancer gives us back a life that we had been taking for granted. We are better to look forward at our developing resources for joy, rather than backwards, to now-dead sources which are better surrendered.
As with the impact generated by the contrast between no pigs, versus pigs, major changes do feel like shocks because, in a way, it’s like our identity changed mediums. Like we’ve been thrown into slo-mo, or suddenly we’re under water and the whole thing just feels uncomfortably weird. And that makes sense. Because all of our brain wiring is for the old character.
If were on the stage of life, and another actor kills our previous role by firing us, or breaking up with us, then our job is not to argue with the other actor. It’s to accept that death and to pick up a new character. But we can’t expect to be as competent with the new character as the old one.
We’d had time to practice being the other person, so we’d smoothed off a lot of that character’s rough edges. It’ll take a while before we’re that comfortable playing the new role, but that can be okay as long as we keep in mind that the evolution of that character is a normal aspect of its existence. It’s again, the motion of living a life.
The important practical implication of all of this is that we stay mentally healthy by remembering that these are all roles, and we’re only on this stage for a period of time.
We are not wrong to feel the impacts, twists and tortured depths of being human. But precisely because those experiences can happen, we should make full use our lives while we’re lucky enough to have them. Because without that fresh new moment to focus on, our ego will fill our time with unproductive and self-limiting second thoughts. And we all have something far better to focus on than those.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own over-thinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.