There’s a popular myth about cell reinvention within the human body that can have an influence on our sense of identity: it says something like, “we create an entirely new body every few years because our bodies generate almost entirely new sets of cells eight to ten times in the course of a typical lifetime”.
What appears to be true and mostly undisputed is this:
- Biologically, neuroplasticity in our brains is real. Based on our experiences, the physical neurons in our brains are rewiring and forming new connections all the time
- Psychologically, our thought processes and sense of who we are changes all the time. Our experiences change our worldview, Our education (both in theoretical learning and on-the-job practice) changes our skills. Our friendships, connections and collaborations continually change both the opportunities open to us and the way we view ourselves.
This continual reinvention of our selves — this reinvention of our sense of self, our identity — is essential during a human lifetime.
In the famous “All the World’s a Stage” speech from the Shakespeare play As You Like It, the character Jaques pokes fun at life by listing out the seven stages of man: the infant, “mewling and puking”; the whining schoolboy; the lover, “sighing like furnace”; the soldier, “full of strange oaths”; the justice, “full of wise saws”; old age, “lean and slippered”; and the ignominious second childhood, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.
As You Like It is made for laughs but as with all the best comedy, it explores essential truths. These seven ages, caricatured depressingly though they may be, point to continual change of ourselves and our place in the world.
If gradual but constant change is an essential part of being human, it’s curious that we cling so desperately to whatever identity has been constructed for us, and try to protect with all we’ve got. (In his book This Is Marketing, the great Seth Godin writes that while we sometimes assume that most people are keen to raise their status, most people actually do not and will fight instead to maintain their status at its present level. Identity and status then are closely related. We seem to want to protect our old identity even as it is changing into something new.)
Embracing and expressing our new identity
Why is it usually so difficult to give expression to that new self?
Occasionally it can be that we are confused about what our new identity is, a slight confusion or lack of clarity over what we now believe in or stand for. This lack of clarity is mostly fairly fleeting, though. If we spend any quality time with ourselves, we generally figure out what we want and don’t want quite quickly.
So mostly, I think, the reluctance to fully embrace and communicate our new and true identity relates to fear.
We often fear we might be deluding ourselves, clinging to the old me because we don’t yet fully believe in the new one.
We often fear just what we might be capable of if we fully embraced our new identity; it is safer, less risky, to stick to the old me and avoid shouldering the responsibility that the new and emerging me is capable of shouldering.
And maybe most often, we fear nothing so much as the judgment of others.
When we speak up for something that is new to us or somehow doesn’t tally with our old self, we run the risk of not being accepted by the people around us, people who have got to know the old us.
The role of fear
From a physiological, evolutionary biology perspective, fear serves to keep us alive. You are here today, quite undeniably, because somebody far back in your ancestral line felt a great deal of fear in some situation he or she found themselves in, and treated that fear seriously enough to take massive evasive action.
In the 21st century, though, so much fear — the fear of judgment, the fear of being outcast, the fear of the great things we might be capable of — is misplaced.
Finding a way past these fears and fully embracing our emerging new identity in the next stage of our life is essential, I think, to successfully navigating all the inevitable challenges of life and leading our own life well lived.
Two short poems that might be appropriate here, and helpful in our journey to knowing and fully accepting ourselves and our ever-changing identities.
“Our Deepest Fear”, by Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
“My Brilliant Image” by Hafez
One day the sun admitted,
“I am just a shadow.
I wish I could show you
The Infinite Incandescence
That has cast my brilliant image.
I wish I could show you,
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The astonishing Light
Of your own Being.”