On Identity and Hiking

I like to think myself cultured, and this means I check the news and have opinions on it, and I read books, both old and new.

One of the books I’m reading is The Seven Basic Plots, a tome attempting to not only condense stories into their seven archetypal plots, but to answer why we tell stories in the first place. Coupling this book with the daily news, which disseminates content by telling stories, drives me to an exercise less about identifying plots and more about identifying wants and needs.

Stories, of course, begin with these wants and these needs. A man needs to get home from war: we have The Odyssey. A woman wants a loving, exciting relationship. Anna Karenina. A man wants to catch the white whale. Moby Dick.

What do the news stories say about us? What is our collective story based on the headlines?

Many of the headlines are about power, and who has it and who doesn’t. Underneath this, however, and coinciding with the stratification of politics and society, is a constant need to say who aligns with who.

For thousands of years, two primary factors have helped us understand who aligns with who: religion and proximity. The former rooted a person in a specific story, with a specific understanding of what’s gone wrong and how to overcome it. Christianity points to original sin and the need for redemption. Buddhism points to our ceaseless wanting and the need to overcome it by detachment. Religion gives its adherents practices to embody, and these practices both reinforce the story and bind the adherents together.

Proximity, or better, community – whether via religion, the state, the family, or all three – gives people a chance to see themselves in the whole. Again, in the frame of story, my gifts complement the character next to me, whether brother or wife or neighbor, as we work together for the common good. This common good often meant taking up arms against the city nearby coming to attack, or sharing our bounty because we’ll need someone to share with us next year. Communities had a common destiny: what I did affected what would happen to you.

Over the second half of the 20th century, these longstanding edifices finally crumbled. They had been tottering for some time. Religion dutifully exited the public square, both pushed out and willingly setting up its own bookstores and culture apart from the mainstream, and ended reduced to the realm of personal piety.

With rising incomes and insurance, we no longer have a common destiny with our neighbors. Accompany this with advances in technology and travel, and Americans are more transient than ever – and even less bound to their neighbors and a common destiny. We are half a continent away from our families, and even the glue of water-cooler gossip has weakened as teammates work from homes thousands of miles away.

Not that I am a Luddite, or too much of one. I like the ability to occasionally work from home. Water cooler communities  were only ever the few small bricks holding this idea of a shared destiny together, anyway. They were signs of its imminent collapse.

Yet, these changes lead us to where we are today: self-formed communities based on overlap of our own personalized, individual “good.” We identify with those who identify with us and form communities as a result. This leads to the rise of identify politics – self formed communities based on identity. Identity politics have and are serving a purpose when they give voice to the voiceless. Nonetheless, self-forming communities lack the diversity and resilience of those old-time communities that religion and proximity could create, especially with the shared destinies they provided.

Today, if my neighbor goes hungry, what is that to me? This is a new phenomenon in the world.

The deeper spiritual malady behind such self-formed communities is that they lack resilience and are ever-changing. We don’t have shared stories, and when we lose our shared stories we actually lose our foundation, our roots. We don’t understand where to go or what to do: how to live out our stories.

We don’t know who we are.

This is why our news stories are hyper-focused today on who aligns with who. We lack identity. We need to know with whom we align so we can know who we are. What is our shared outcome. To put it another way, society most longs for that which it most lacks. Like a group of hikers on trail too long who cannot stop talking about cheeseburgers and pie, we cannot stop talking about who we are because we have no idea.

On Mixed Drinks and Identity

shutterstock_107523386I’ve been out to eat a surprising amount lately, considering how much my wife and I regularly dine out. We’ve frequented trendy gastropubs and new restaurants in the area. At each, as the drink list gets set down with our menu, I’ve noted the Moscow Mules and Old-Fashioneds, the Manhattans and other highballs that are ubiquitous now, like it’s the 1940s.

It’s interesting, actually, that I mention the 1940s because that era featured a similar trend–in the way of music. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, what was termed “sweet” music filled the radio waves, so much so that people complained that each song on the radio sounded exactly like the one before. Of course, in the early 1940s we experienced World War II, and our entire culture responded by wanting romantic, soothing music for the remainder of the decade. Everyone wanted to think about their (in the parlance of the day) guy or gal, to think about love and closeness: it was like half a decade of comfort food. People didn’t want challenging, interesting music. They wanted something comfortable.

You could make the argument that the changes over the last decade in our society have been the largest since World War II, at least in ways that we see ourselves and know about the world around us (and I, for one, am making said argument). But rather than sweet music, we’ve become obsessed with vintage. Slow. Old-fashioned.

This is reflected in our love of highballs and “older” drinks to designs we love. In fact, even Major League Soccer recently redesigned their logo to a shield, adding some of that vintage look. The logos we love often have this vintage feel. People, more and more, are interested in organic (a return to the not-so-distant past) in their eating, or paleo (a bit more distant). You know someone who has grown a beard–probably lots of someones. People you come into contact with are interested in making their own–something. From beer to carpentry to the DIY craze to simple filters on Instagram, a confluence of events has made us desperate, thirsty if you will, to get in touch with what we perceive as simpler times.

Part of that is the recession. The other part is the continual connectivity and pace of life. We seek roots. It’s the same reason the ancestry craze continues to beat on, only our ancestors our set, but our hobbies and tastes are not. We can create our own vintage selves by applying a filter or building a chair–or drinking an Old-Fashioned.

This shift toward everything vintage will not last. It will become passe (perhaps it has), but in our increasingly changing world, people will continue to seek for ways to find peace, solace, rootedness. It may happen again in our music (or it may already be happening, if you listen to certain stations: every song does often sound the same).

But we cannot change identities by the drinks we choose or even the hobbies we take up. We need to speak more forcefully into culture, offering alternative ways to live. This is why religion will not die and may even find rebirth in the coming generations. Strict adherence to religious orders and communities offers a new identity in ways that filtering your photos cannot. This is partly why I belong to a religious community, and I read authors who have been published for hundred or thousands of years. It roots me and allows me pause about what’s new; it allows me to see my identity beyond these choices I make of clothes and hobbies, which are ultimately consumeristic choices.

May you find your identity in something far beyond consumeristic choices, and rather in the meaning and community you provide to others. May you find it deep within, rather than needing to broadcast it. And may that identity provide you the framework to make those choices–so you can smugly enjoy a Moscow Mule while knowing it does nothing to contribute to who you are, unlike those heathens at the bar (or someone who uses a typewriter photo in their blog header).

Because, on the other hand, much of culture will continue to try on new identities with the least effort and cognitive dissonance involved. Thank you, Instagram.