This piece was written in December 2010 but most of it still rings true for me.
If there is one thing illness is good at it is stripping away layers of your identity. Many people identify with their job and, when you are too ill to engage in the workplace, this aspect of your life is something only to be thought of in the past. Similarly, relationships form a large part of how we see our self, and these too are often a casualty of becoming severely or chronically ill. For a romantic partner, the transformation of their lover from confident, able, co-creator of a bright future to worn down patient can be hard to take. Even close friends often find illness hard to deal with, especially if your common ground is found through shared activity or late night drinking sessions.
When I was 25, I knew who I was. At least I thought I did. After the typical academic path of secondary school, university degree and PhD, I found myself doing post-doctoral research at the University of Zürich. I had a wonderful girlfriend and many good friends. My colleagues respected me and my parents were proud that I had managed to make a success of a career in biological science. Outside of work and relationships I enjoyed walking the hills of my new home and visiting art galleries. Life was sweet.
In December 1995 this all ended rather abruptly. This was definitely not part of the plan. I had hoped to gain a post as a lecturer at 30 and be a professor at 40. Having just had my fortieth birthday, the way my life has turned out is very different to how my twenty-five year old self had envisioned it. At first, illness was seen as an unwanted but temporary intrusion into my existence. I still held onto my identity as a scientist as I imagined it was something I would return to. Within a year it was clear that I would not be returning to my work and my relationship had ended. My identity as a well person was also falling away.
Is this loss of identity such a bad thing? Well it certainly felt like it at the time, and the loss of part of one’s life can feel very much like a death. In many spiritual paths, however, shedding the masks we commonly take to be ourself is a goal rather than something to be feared. Dying to oneself opens up the opportunity to connect to all experience instead of clinging to one small part of life. Teachings make clear that this can be a painful exercise but if we are willing to let go of our various masks, we can use what is happening to us in order to push through our limited view of ourself into something larger.
When we feel a loss of identity the immediate reaction is usually to find a new one. In the face of severe or chronic illness, the pull to identify with the diagnosis we have been given can be strong. Many people join patient groups and, with old friends dropping by the wayside, new friendships can be formed with those who have the same condition. Of course, using patient groups as support and making friends with those who understand what you are going through is no bad thing. Once the illness bcomes your identity, though, it can be a hard mask to drop and an obstacle to getting well. I don’t think I have ever identified with my illness although I acknowledge the limitations it brings. I have, however, found identity through spiritual practice. This, I doubt, is any better.
I have few friends from my old life as an energetic scientist and they would probably not recognise the person I am now. Similarly, people who know me now probably find it hard to imagine who I was then. I suspect this is not only true of those who are ill, though. Few of us would be the same at 40 as were in our mid twenties. There may be common elements but, as we live and learn, we drop outused ideas and identities in favour of those which fit us more fully.
Strangely, although we are all aware from our own experience how people change over time, there is a very human tendency to put people in boxes with labels based on their job, religion, musical preferences and sexuality, and expect those to largely stay the same. Stepping outside of your box will often be met with resistance and even anger by those in the same box. The Buddha himself experienced this when he realised that asceticism was not working for him and was rejected by his spiritual friends for giving up. Like death, facing the fact that identity is fluid and not fixed can be an uncomfortable realisation. In the animal world, though, it is a natural occurrence. Snakes and other reptiles regularly shed skin which they have outgrown and the image of spiritual transformation of the chrysalis becoming a butterfly is a well worn one.
Recently, I have realised how much I confirm my identity through my possessions. Buddhist icons and prayer flags remind me, and others, of my spiritual leanings. Biology textbooks affirm my scientific knowledge and educational status. Organic food and vegetarian cookbooks tell another story about me. Looking around, some of these things serve a useful purpose, others merely exist to reflect who I want to be. This is particularly true of objects from my past, which have not only outlived their usefulness but also verify a self which has long since gone. Although I am sad to think of it, it is time for those things to find a new home. I have enough masks to deal with now without clinging to old ones.
Illness, then, can be an opportunity to open to experience. As old identities fall away, rather than replace them with new ones, we can see how it feels to become homeless. By giving up having a home anywhere, the whole world becomes ours. If we have a religion, then we know where we are accepted but also the places we cannot go. By dropping that, we can find solace in church , temple or synagogue without preference. Becoming homeless is not something most of us would choose voluntarily, but clinging to one thing dramatically limits your options. If you have no thing you have everything.
Over the last 15 years I have fought to establish a new identity for myself, after the one I had so carefully constructed was pulled away. Perhaps it is time to give up fighting.
“Die, and be quiet
Quietness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon comes out now.”