Possession Identity

“Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.”

 William James

This is today’s Moment of Happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I remember times in my life when my sense of identity was very much tied up with objects.

My first car was a 1983 Volvo 240DL wagon. My parents had bought it new when I was 6 years old and I remembered how huge the backseat had seemed and how smooth the vinyl upholstery was under my legs. I learned to drive on that car (and I taught my husband how to drive stick on it) and it just kind of became mine during my sophomore year of college. That car was blue, and she was boxy. She handled like crap in the snow (rear-wheel drive), and I could fit an entire full-size mattress in the trunk if I put the back seat down. Two friends and I slept in the back when we went to Halloween at Ohio University one year because we were afraid we’d be puked on if we slept in the house where we were staying.  When I sold that car, I cried.

In college, there was a professor who was trying to quit smoking by only buying cigarettes one at a time for a quarter each from the smokers clustered outside the academic buildings before and after classes. One day, I was smoking with a couple of other people before Brit Lit when this professor came out of the building, surveying the scene.

“Ah!” he said when he saw me. “A Camel smoker!”

I traded him a smoke for a quarter and thought to myself, “A Camel smoker…yes, that’s what I am.”

I’ve not smoked in 15 years and it’s been nearly 10 years since I said farewell to that Volvo. I think I’ve loosened my attachment to things in the intervening years, but when I give up clothes or when I consider buying a different car (I’m still driving the car that replaced the Volvo, by the way), I still think, “Who am I if I don’t wear this item, if I don’t drive this car?”

In a slight shift from that, as a mother, I realize I’ve begun to base my identity on my relationship with my children. While one could argue that defining oneself by one’s relationships to living people is perhaps a little healthier than defining oneself by the brand of cigarettes one smokes (for more reasons than one), it still doesn’t take into account who I am on my own (or, for that matter, who my children are separate from me).

Who are we on our own, unattached to people or things? Is this why we cling so tenaciously to possessions and people and social media? Are we afraid of who we’ll meet when we’re all alone in the quiet? Is that what I’m afraid of?

4 Replies to “Possession Identity”

  1. This is something, as you know, I’m searching out. So, don’t read this comment if you both a) don’t want a potential trigger and b) don’t want to read about the Nietzschean abyss because if you look into it, it will look back at you.

    Deep in the heart of PPDarkness, after I had stopped wanted and trying to die, after I had stopped struggling, after I no longer cared to make the decision to give up (and this is polar opposite to being suicidal. This was beyond the space of pain or fear) I floated in that emptiness without expectation or care. This nothingness was huge and all encompassing. So vast that it was nonsensical. I was terrified to the bone-more afraid than at any other time: not when I faced my own death, the death of my daughter, or the fear of my youngest being maimed.

    That nothingness was true and there was no comfort. Ever. And I still haven’t turned away from it into comfort or spirit, etc. I can’t handle it at times and slip into anger and depression.

    But, yeah, knowing the empty, cold, uncaring truth helps me let go even more of attachment. It also creates a space for the largest love that I can’t describe.

    That’s me. That’s all of us. There’s no comfort in it. There’s no “but” to make it softer. And I know you get this from Buddhist thought, the way our brain chemistry works in understanding the impermanence of all is to make our human hearts open wide and glow. None of this is mine. It’s a continual falling away of illusions of control and possession. To allow for love, knowing all of this truth. To live, knowing it is meaningless.

    And, now, I should go listen to some Raffi before I write a trite, upbeat closing sentence to my maudlin comment.


    1. Two things that come to mind reading your comment, Zoie:

      1) In the book I’m reading now, a character chooses “nothing” as his fate upon passing into the afterlife. As he’s standing at the doorway looking into that abyss, he’s surprised by just how joyful he feels at the idea of nothing. (A little while before, he’s also told that not only are there no happy endings, there are no endings.)

      2) The Nina Simone song, “I Got No/I Got Life.” She lists all of the things she doesn’t have and then she asks, “Well then what have I got? Why am I alive anyway? What have I got no one can take away?” I was thinking about the song in reference to your comment about how none of us truly possesses anything anyway. I hadn’t thought of it that way…that if we don’t own anything, we can lose nothing and neither can anyone take anything from us.

      I don’t know that this directly responds to what you’ve said, but it’s what came to mind, and I think it relates.


  2. Hmmm… Well, I think the answer to the question “Who are we on our own” is, quite simply, no one.

    We live, for better or worse, in an interdependent world, where not only people are interdependent on each other, but everything in the entire world depends on something else. Every action has a consequence. If we are alone in a vacuum, with no belongings, no people, who are we? Do we have an identity if we cannot be shaped by our experiences, our belongings, the company we keep? I don’t know if we should be afraid of who we’ll meet in the quiet. I think we would be more afraid of who we won’t meet. We might be afraid to admit that we need other people to shape our own self, and that our self is really only a reflection of how other people see us. I don’t know if this is the truth or not. I went through a kind of identity crisis a couple years ago, where I realized that I was just kind of going through life and I had no idea what I wanted anymore, that i felt like I was just on a path and was not truly making decisions for myself. Being a mom is hard because for a while, that is a limit to what you can be. I can’t stay up at all hours writing anymore. I can’t go to conventions as much, I can’t write all day. Did I make a bad choice by becoming a parent? No, I wanted kids. I want what I have. Still, being defined by your kids is hard. I want to be me, for me. Being there all the time, doing everything because you have to because you are a mom, it sure does a number on your ego! Like you want to soar above the clouds, but oh, you have to go make dinner… And I think part of that was that I was afraid that if you took away the mom bit, which I had been doing for 7 years, I would be a shell of a person. That scared me.

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense. It’s not a complaint, it’s not wishing for more exactly, it’s just that when you realize the duality of life sometimes, it’s hard to take. I’ve come to terms with everything now, and I am able to say I’m a writer, I’m a mom. I’m me.


    1. I don’t disagree that our possessions and our relationships shape who we are, but I think there’s a difference between those things influencing our experience of the world and those things defining who we are. When you peel away all the layers of an onion, you’re left with…nothing. The onion was the layers, but being so makes it no less an onion. Does this same thing work for people? Probably. But you can’t define an entire person by just one layer. I’m a mother, but that’s the entirety of “me.” Neither is owning a car or not or voting one way or another or any of the other things that make us us. And I guess that it’s tempting to want to pick one thing and define ourselves by that one thing, but there’s also a danger in that. What if that layer is peeled away? Who are we then? It’s the realization of that duality you mention that liberates us and make us more who we are, I think.


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