This isn’t about me. This is about you.

Well, I suppose it’s kind of about me, but really, it’s about you, and all of us. It’s about who you are, who they are, who we are. It’s about where we are in who we are, how we are in who we are, and who we are in where we are.

And it all begins with one very simple, yet very important question: What matters?

Of my own volition, I see a counselor once a week. It’s not required by my parole officer or anyone in the Department of Corrections or anything like that; I simply decided that I wanted someone to have some solid, deep, and meaningful conversations with who has absolutely no vested interest in my life. And by luck-of-the-draw, I happened to get a great one.

identity2We spoke recently about the issue of personal identity, and from where I tend to derive my personal sense of self-image. And after some deep derivative dialogue, I came to admit what I’d always known and what he’d accurately inferred: I derive much of my self-identity from the image I portray to others – to a certain extent, I am who I am only in the eyes of my peers. And this, in my situation, is a problem.

My reputation, to put it lightly, is, well, shit. So if I were to only base my self-image (and self-worth) on the opinions that others have of me, the my self-esteem would be somewhere between the post-flush toilet and the sewage treatment plant. I am so widely-hated by so many people that there is no way I would be able to rectify that. I’ve done evil – there’s no denying that – and to think I could change anyone’s opinion of me would be beyond futile. So there has been a struggle within me (of which I haven’t really been aware until my counselor brought it to light) to find my personal sense of self-image in my newly redefined life. I can no longer define my identity by the way others see me, because if I did, I would only be defined by the overwhelming negativity that blankets the assumption that I am one with my past. And therefore, my “image” can no longer matter to me.

And yet, the past seems to dominate my contemporary idea of “identity.” One of my closest friends said something to me the other day that made me question my own personal concept of how I view myself and my identity. “Are you ever going to write about anything other than your crime?” she asked. This question kind of caught me off-guard. Writing about my crime, about sex addiction, about my struggles – it’s been the constant theme of what I’ve written ever since prison. “Well,” I replied, “it’s kind of my niche, I guess.” I was kind of at a loss for words. But her reply made me even more speechless. “I don’t read your writing because of what you write about,” she said, “I read your writing because you’re a great writer.”  First of all, what an amazing compliment! Second, this concept completely threw my personal concept of identity into a tailspin. I guess I’ve just been grasping onto the fact that my struggle is the only thing that makes me unique. But maybe – just maybe – I have a little more to say.

As a teacher, I wanted to be the “cool teacher” or the “popular teacher” or the “edgy teacher;” – I wanted to be John Keating. And that began to matter more to me than anything. It was all about image and ego and appearance. But none of that can matter anymore because a significant part of my identity – the “cool teacher” – has been taken from me. And this broken man is all that’s left.

What is your identity? Here’s an interesting way to quiz yourself on how you view your own identity: If you wrote down your first name, followed by the word “the,” what would go after the “the?” I was “Kurt the Teacher” for quite some time. Before that, I was “Kurt the Runner,” for example. But if I base my identity on who I am in the eyes of others, I’m “Kurt the Felon” or “Kurt the Sex Offender” or something. And granted, all of that is true, but is it how I (or anyone) should identify me? No.

You should not be identified (or identify yourself) by your greatest accomplishment, or your worst failure, or your job, or anything superficial like that – because in an instant, it can all be taken away.

So on what should you base your identity? Well, that’s actually quite simple, and it directly correlates with a question I’ve already asked: What matters?

What matters, indeed…

As Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club, “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.” Absolutely. None of that matters. Your true identity is something that no one can take from you. So ask yourself, what follows your “…the…”? Who are you. Not what are you; who are you?

Typically I write about me. But today, I’m writing about you. I’ve learned some very tough lessons during the recent chapters of my life’s saga, and want those lessons to benefit more than just me. I’m going to have to spend a lot of years doing a lot of good to balance out the evil I’ve done. And maybe I’ll never be square with the house, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try. If you’re reading this – this very sentence at this very moment – then perhaps you have enough respect for me read what I have to say. Or perhaps it’s mere morbid curiosity to see what someone “like me” would possibly write about – I don’t know. But I do know this: If I hadn’t been forced to face my demons, I would still be identifying myself on the same superficial level that led me to believe that I was only as valuable as the opinions others had of me.

And perhaps I have not yet fully grasped my identity in the new context of my life, but I have at least learned enough to know, for the first 30+ years of my life, I was doing it wrong.

So ask yourself these things…

What is your identity?

What follows your “…the…”?

What matters?