The Small Stories Define Who We Are

Clint Oka
3 min readJun 8, 2021
Joshua Melo from Unsplash

We tell ourselves who we are.

I’m a painter. I’m kind. I’m a writer.

We have habits that we do. And as we do them we reinforce our identity.

Say for example I go to the gym 5 days a week. Then I tell myself I’m a gym goer, because I actually showed up to the gym. We label this and now we know where we belong in the world.

We are totally scared of not knowing. Not knowing who we are. Not knowing the topic of conversation. Not knowing the answer.

So we cling to anything that gives us a feeling of knowing. We create an identity.

But what if we lost those labels. Or what about the expectations of living up to that label.

Will we lose our sense of self if we stop going to the gym?

Will our lives crumble when we can’t maintain our identity or when something comes our way that bumps us off our game.

Small stories are what really define us without labels. Say we call ourselves kind. We think of all the small stories of when we were kind. What about the one time we were unkind. Does that mean we aren’t kind anymore?

If we define ourselves with small stories, there’s no label. No stress about who we are. There are just stories of what happened. Small stories when we realized something. Small stories when something good or bad happened, but we grew and learned something about ourselves.

Or is it only when bad things disrupt the normal that’s when we learn something?

The small moments are what actually define us. Our lives are like just a collection of small stories.

Sitting quietly for 30 minutes in a zen sangha, which is a community meeting place, I start to watch my thoughts.

The wind blows outside cutting through the leaves on the bodhi tree in the garden.

I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming in through the window and it’s a nice break from my monkey mind that keeps finding things to stress about.

Ever since I started to meditate I find my mind wandering and going down rabbit holes. And it seems like there are recurring themes.

I kind of assume these themes are what is bothering me, mostly troubling, most debate, source of most anxiety that I have.

I think about myself, judge myself. Think about what I should be doing. Trying to find some kind of assurance of who I am.

I’ll be a drawer, I always find the illustrations so creative.

No, no, no I’m not skilled enough. I’ll be a coder.

So I am going to code everyday. Then finally I’ll have a place in this world.

Then when I stop coding or lose interest I beat myself up and question who I am.

After the meditation session one of the organizers gives me a newsletter and I take it home to read it.

It said our lives are like a constant pilgrimage. We move from one darkness to another darkness, in search of a destination, but there is no destination.

The writer asks me what will I have at that perceived destination that I don’t already have now?

So yes it does make me question my motives and goals.

I heard Mark Manson talk about Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during World War II, who were never told that the war was over.

They kept fighting the war until the 70’s. They were doing a great job, but spent all this time on a misplaced goal.

What should we really care about?