Warning – I wanted to give a heads up that this post includes a couple of f-bombs, in case anyone is offended by such things.
You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Identities are a tricky things. The way that we identify ourselves can come from a variety of sources, from genetics and biology, to upbringing and cultural factors, to our jobs, to the identities other people foist upon us. There are countless points of origin for the various pieces that create this person that we view as ourself. I want to look at one specific aspect of this today, and that is the identity that we cultivate based on our things.
For better or for worse, one of the formative works of fiction in my early twenties was Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I had already begun developing an interest in philosophy when I first read Fight Club, so I was immediately taken by the obvious nods toward Nietzschean nihilism. There’s a lot that I could say here about the fact that me discussing the philosophy of Fight Club in my twenties was also a vehicle for identity creation/reinforcement, but that’s a story for another day.
There are a lot of quotable lines in Fight Club, but the phrase that probably most often runs through my head to this day is, “you are not your fucking khakis.” This line is the punctuation of the longer quote above, and it’s a pretty simple distillation of one of the repeating themes of the book, that the things we own will end up owning us.
If you have read my recent posts, you know that I have been purging a lot of my possessions recently, in pursuit of a more minimalist lifestyle. There are a lot of reasons why I have chosen to do this, but one of the motivations stems from a process that began a little over a year ago, when I began studying Buddhism and started to ask myself questions about this person that I viewed myself to be.
Early on in this exploration, I began to think about the identity that I was cultivating in my job and with the clothes that I wore. I manage a craft beer and wine bar, and I have always taken a lot of pride in having a carefully curated selection that included a lot of product that I actually drive across the state to procure. I would say that a lot of us take on identities based on our jobs, as they are such a large part of the way we spend our lives. I had definitely begun to build an identity based on the work that I was doing, and would always revel in the moments where people would recognize how hard I worked to bring them beer that they couldn’t get anywhere else. To further state my craft beer bone fides, I had a collection of t-shirts from all of the most hyped breweries in the northwest, and I would eat it up when someone would recognize the brewery and say something that would allow me to explain that I just tapped a keg from them that I drove 8 hours round trip to purchase. I even got a tattoo with hops flowing from a beer tap, lest there still be any doubt about what a beer guy I was.
The more time went on, the more I began to explore my attachment to this identity. Was this really who I was? Was it even really the thing that I wanted to define me? I thought about how hard I was working to maintain this identity. I reflected on how upset I got when one of my competitors got a beer in that I didn’t have, because it challenged my identity as “the guy who brings in beers nobody else has.” I was also spending a lot of time and money on the protection of this identity, which I could have been spending on things that were really more important. I realized that there was suffering and a kind of bondage in the maintenance of this identity.
This was really the contemplation that lead to my original round of minimizing. Several months ago, I went through my closet and got rid of most of my brewery shirts. It wasn’t that I thought that there was a problem with owning them, it was just that I had made the decision to stop basing my identity on this aspect of my life, and I felt like these shirts were not really serving me in this. I kept a couple of my favorite shirts, but got rid of all the rest. Not only did I find freedom in letting go of this attachment to my identity, I also found a sense of relief in the simple act of trimming my wardrobe down.
The last couple of weeks, as I have been going through all of my things to decide what I will be taking with me in my upcoming move, I have done a major purge on my book collection. This has been the biggest project thus far in my minimalist journey. We had, literally, 100s of books. I love to read, so over the years I have accumulated a lot of them. My book purchases have covered a number of different phases, from my existentialist philosophy phase, to a brief flirtation with the idea of starting a small scale sustainable farm. As I went through the process of deciding on the handful of books that I would keep, I realized that my book collection had also served to establish an identity. I have always thought of myself as well-read, and having several bookshelves full of books confirmed that to myself, and to anyone who came into my home. Deciding to get rid of most of these books felt like a profound act of letting go. Letting go of maintaining an idea of my self, and accepting a more spacious and meaningful existence.
There is nothing wrong with owning, and even enjoying things. I still find a lot of joy in reading, and even in owning, a nice book. I just believe that we expose ourselves to a lot of unnecessary anxiety and suffering when we create an identity based on our possessions. I have found that paying attention to the relationship that we have with our things is a really important part of living a happy and meaningful life. Are we viewing our things in ways that promote satisfaction and wellbeing, or are we dependent on them to give us meaning? Our things are impermanent, and the satisfaction that they bring is even more ephemeral. Our meaning can never be truly based on such a precarious foundation. We are not our things. We are not our fucking khakis.