Originally published on Huffington Post.
In mid 2009, I left my position as CEO of a company that I had founded. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of an almost four-year process that I can only describe as losing my identity.
In this time frame I would go through heartbreak and homelessness and question every aspect of my life. I moved from Honolulu to San Francisco to New York City. The new company I started went through eight pivots, four co-founders, and near bankruptcy. I spent 11 months living in my car and incurred massive debt just to keep things going. After a challenging breakup, I didn’t go on a single date for 18 months. I decided to stop eating meat and lost 15 pounds of muscle mass. I sold almost everything I owned down to my car, ultimately living on the grace of good friends. I went through immense psychological stress and periods of time where I could see no light at the end of the tunnel.
All the things that had been important to me — a nice apartment, fashionable clothes, a fancy startup, my social life, financial stability, my diet and fitness, even my sexuality — dissolved. Spending nights alone in my car, staring at rain drops sliding down the window, there was nothing to distract me from me.
As I began to let go of all these things, I came to a very challenging psychological place: I had no idea who I was. With every core identity in question, I had a very hard time even socializing with other people. If I had no identity, on what basis could I connect with others?
Identity is that collection of attributes that defines how we see ourselves. It is the answer to the question: Who am I? Anyone who has ever seriously asked themselves that question may have found that the answer is not as obvious as one might think it should be.
I am Lorenz. But who is that? The relationship that I have with the people I know, the things I do, and the stuff I own paints a very inviting image of who I am. But what happens when I take those things away? Who am I then?
When the attributes of our identity are externalized, those attributes control us. Our sense of self worth becomes dependent on external considerations. We must have enough money, means, and status in order to consider ourselves happy. In pursuit of maintaining this false sense of happiness, we cling all the more strongly to external identifiers because so much self worth emanates from them. It can take losing these things, losing our identity, to see our true nature outside of them.
Each identity is a limited interpretation of who we are. The sum of our external identities is far less than the whole of our being. True freedom arises when we are not dependent on something outside ourselves for the way we feel about ourselves. The way we feel about ourselves starts with the relationship that we have with ourselves.
We choose the people we hang out with, the things we do, and the stuff we buy. That choice comes from somewhere. The source of that choice is much closer to our identity than the product. To understand our choices we must examine why we do the things that we do.
In experiencing my loss of identity, I could see that many of my actions were motivated by a desire for external recognition. I was either trying to impress others or worried about how they would judge me. However, any situation where my self expression is contingent upon the validation of others is bound to limit me from being myself. And if I’m not being myself, how can I possibly be happy?
True identity is being true to oneself. For me this is cultivating genuine self respect and a willingness to be vulnerable. This makes for a more flexible identity that is based on how I feel about my actions rather than the outcome of my actions. If I feel good then I know my behavior is aligned with values that bring me real happiness.
Since my car-living days, I’ve raised money for my company, moved into a beautiful apartment, and started dating an amazing woman. Am I attached to these things? Absolutely. But I try not to depend on them for how I feel about myself. Most importantly, I’m learning to see myself outside of my circumstances. This hasn’t happened overnight. It’s a process of making small choices that reinforce personal dignity day by day. When my self worth is decoupled from external considerations, I allow for genuine self expression to occur. In this sense, losing identity is really about finding ones true self.
In struggling to find my identity I realized that I create my own identity. This is the most valuable lesson that I have learned. When I let go of the need to define myself, I can choose any definition I want. By accepting that I am not limited by any notion of identity, I liberate myself to just be me. Right here, right now, I am choosing my identity by how I am choosing to spend my time. In this very moment I am creating myself and this is my identity.
Religion promises to give us a relationship with the divine. Yet all too often this relationship is underscored by the shadow of separation. By virtue of one’s definition of the divine, one loses their relationship with the divinity that is inherent in life itself – that of each human being.
Every religion finds love at it’s heart. Love knows no labels. It has no brand. Love is that force which brings us together, allowing us to accept each other and find compassion for every situation.
With love we can begin to realize that every human being is part of our family. We are all mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. We are all connected through our humanity.
You don’t need to be a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a Hindu to appreciate the value of love. You are human. It is inside you. You have the love of humanity in your heart.
Everyday we create the world we live in through our consumption. We may not realize it, but our daily purchasing decisions are some of the most important choices we make and have far reaching global impact. Commerce is the lifeblood of humanity. Since the dawn of civilization people have bartered with and bought goods from one another. Cultivating consciousness around consumption means developing awareness around our true impact on other people and this planet. By making an effort to be more conscious about how products are produced, sold and consumed, we can have far more enjoyable experiences and make the world a better place.
The things we consume have a life cycle that spans the global supply chain – from cotton plantations in the United States to electronics factories in China to banana farms in South America. Our consumption habits have significant downstream impact. It can be hard to see when we’re buying a t-shirt or a piece of jewelry, but the things we purchase either support a positive relationship with people and our planet or a negative one.
Consider the life cycle of food as it makes its way to the table. How was the food cultivated? Was it raised in a sustainable manner by farmers that really cared about you and the planet? How was it picked, processed and distributed? How were workers treated in the process? Finally, how was it prepared just before it came to your plate?
It’s a little easier to track the path of food from farm to table because food is so heavily regulated. With a little bit of effort we can choose to buy organic. But it’s harder to see the bigger picture. The fact is, a similar line of questioning can be applied to every product we purchase, from furniture to footwear.
The amount of effort it would take to track the entire supply chain is mind boggling and well beyond what even the most well-meaning person would ever want to do. It’s hard enough figuring out the source of the food on our table, much less all the clothes and electronics we buy.
One place to start is simple: reduce consumption. Stepping back from everything we own, we might realize that we don’t actually own anything – everything owns us. Every item we purchase, from our car to our shoes, is something we have to take care of and maintain.
Often we lose sight of all the things we own, and consumption becomes an opiate – the fleeting satisfaction of getting that shinny new thing. Inevitably, most of the things we buy end up as clutter in the closet or another reason to spend a hundred dollars a month for storage space. A person can’t avoid owning stuff – even a monk owns a mat. But we can become much more aware of what we bring into our lives.
Our culture prizes getting the best deal on everything we buy. Supply always meets demand and our appetite for consumption is met with a flood of low cost, low quality products. Getting that shinny new thing has become a staple of the modern economy – one that churns up global resources much faster than we can replace them. There’s a lot to be said for spending more on a high quality product that will actually last. Well designed products are more enjoyable and more durable. In the long run, that means greater cost savings as the product won’t need to be replaced as soon. Spending more on a product also promotes good quality craftsmanship which supports merchants that actually care about the products that they sell.
When it comes to local merchants, one can actually talk to the owner and rely on their expertise. It starts with asking the right questions and making an effort. In a perfect world every human being would profoundly care about how their actions affect other human beings. We might not be there yet, but we can support the people who are making the effort, particularly independent merchants who love what they do.
As human beings, we each have the power to be the change we want to see in the world. Each of us can make the choice to care about what we consume. Conscious commerce really means finding love for ourselves. When we love ourselves, we care about the things we put into and onto our body. When we love the planet, we think about how the things we purchase affect the planet and the people on it.