Daniel Day-Lewis made his name by diving fully into each of the characters he played. He was famously selective about what roles he would take and wasn't afraid of taking a long time off in between movies. When he starred in Lincoln in 2012, Day-Lewis took on the character of Abraham Lincoln so fully that he wouldn't break character even when he wasn't filming.
This dedication to so fully assuming the identity of the person he was playing earned Day-Lewis plenty of accolades; he won the Academy Award for best actor three times and was nominated three other times, despite only appearing in a movie 21 times in his entire career. But there's a downside to the way he worked: Day-Lewis had to retire from acting in 2017, saying that his acting method had driven him into depression too many times. Decades of taking on others' identities had taken a toll.
I think there's a similar risk for any of us if we are not careful about how we create and define our personal identities.
During his lengthy career, Dale Murphy was one of the most beloved players in Atlanta Braves history. He was an All Star seven times, six of those coming consecutively from 1982-1987, and Murphy was the National League MVP back-to-back in 1982 and 1983. If that's not enough, he won the Gold Glove for his defense five years in a row during the same stretch.
But for as big of a deal as Murphy was during his playing days, the way he has carried himself in retirement is what I find the most interesting. Where many former professional athletes struggle to figure out how to handle retired life, Murphy has thrived in a lot of ways.
Almost three years ago, Wright Thompson wrote this beautiful piece on Murphy. In it, Thompson shows the ways that Murphy made choices during his playing career that helped build the life he has now. Read it, and you'll also see the way that Murphy has mostly shed the identity of Dale Murphy, baseball player, and invested in his role as Dale Murphy, father and grandfather. Murphy's present-day happiness is a little about his identity as a baseball player, but a whole lot more about the family that surrounds him. Near the end, Thompson writes about a family dinner that turns to Murphy's children singing his praises as a Dad and as a grandpa:
I wish I could disappear and let this family have its moment, but I'm also glad to witness the rarest thing in the world: a man content with his choices. Baseball was most valuable to him because it gave him the freedom to be completely present as his children grew up, which led him here. All any of us can hope for is to love and be loved like this.
Thompson has also frequently told the story of William Nack's funeral. The famed Sports Illustrated scribe died in 2018, and when his children spoke at his memorial service, they talked about what a great Dad he was. Not that they weren't proud of his accomplishments as a writer, but the identity that mattered was the one at home. And if anyone would have deserved being lauded for his work at his funeral, it's Nack. Take a break and read his 1990 story on Secretariat to see what I mean.
It's kind of like what Paul Graham wrote about in his essay called "Keep Your Identity Small." He delves into primarily the political and religious aspects of identity, but the concluding idea is that there is value in being careful about what (and how much) you let in as a part of your identity.
Day-Lewis deserves praise for his devotion to his craft. I admire his selectiveness and his dedication, but he also serves as a warning. I think Graham is right about being careful not to let too many things tie themselves into your identity or to wrap yourself too tightly around one identifier. But the best models come from Nack and Murphy, I think. Murphy was one of the best baseball players of the 1980s, but his greatest joy at age 65 is in being surrounded by family at a full table.