In this world of billions, do you know exactly who you are? Or are you defined by what others imagine to be you?
You might answer: an overseer of systems; a happy but beleaguered parent of triplets under age two; a college grad who ditched the job hunt to camp across the USA, or a gardener who battles multiple sclerosis. The first person may be seen as a “techie” or “geek”. The second may be viewed as unlucky or saintly. The third could be called bold, aimless, or impulsive. And the gardener, brave– or comprimised.
But at the end of each day, who do these folks really think they are? Do they go home and ponder what it is they honestly want/need/love/loathe, then end up feeling lost? Or do are they better attuned to what matters most, the inner intersecting the outer, continuing to confirm their actual identities?
How we define ourselves may be getting more complicated as the world’s technologies advance. We are given many opportunities to obscure or reinterpret who we are. No longer confined to front porches, to known neighborhoods or even one country’s cultural climates, we can broaden our world without end. With social media and technological advances, fancy phones and tablets and all the dazzling apps and options, people can and do create new identities online, for example. The televsion show “Catfish” exposes that curious phenonomen.
If I want to be “Brad”, age 32–okay, easy. If I want to tell you I reside on an island off Italy’s coast, how can you determine otherwise if I do my homework (online)? I might, in fact, be a woman over fifty who lives in a row house in Detroit. Or maybe I’ll just say I’m a woman over 40 who has a career as a young adult book illustrator, loves Siamese cats, and has no kids. Meanwhile, this hypothetical “I” is, in fact, wondering how much longer things can be managed with an alcoholic husband, an autistic son and a part-time job. But who is to ever know?
I am not, of course, dismissing playing, trying on different styles and ways of expression, stepping into another role from time to time, exploring fresh avenues of becoming. I doubt we ever stop experimenting entirely with how we inhabit ourselves and manifest personality. As human beings, we evolve richly over time, using our own basic building blocks, our own boxes of colors.
But technology can obscure things for me rather than clarify. I often wonder what a person texting messages is actually thinking, feeling and doing. Where are the vocal inflections, the minute facial changes that reveal so much? Can a simple “emoticon” even mimic the correct emotion? How quick to pick a smiley face and send that on. How lazy, I suspect. How little it takes to throw one liners and truncated symbols out there. Who really cares what we feel in the daily mad dash for success or sheer survival? Still, I wonder how it is that we got so busy we can’t spare fifteen minutes to make a call or a half hour to stop by to say “hello.” To look at each other, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Now that takes some vulnerability. Intention and determination. Trust.
But even when we have the time to visit one another, it can be hard to drop a persona that is well-known, habitual. Hard to be frank about what’s really going on in our lives–good, not good or boring. I have skimmed over more meetings with friends and family than I to admit. It may be a minor at the time, but later it can sure bother me.
I recently had lunch with a close friend whom I met twenty years ago. We’ve both worked in the mental health/addictions treatment field for decades. While I am now retired, she has been employed ten years in a prison setting. Her work is so integral to who she is that she talks about clients (no names) almost as if they were her family. There are characteristics I recognize from way back–sudden laughter, garrulousness, an easy yet tough demeanor that demonstrates she will accept everyone if possible but not without immovable boundaries. I know some of her most private stories; she knows some of mine. She is one of the most generous people I have ever known. I know she loves blues but also opera and Bonnie Raitt. And that she is ill, that her life will come to a close far sooner than either of us can admit.
I know all this because we have gotten together a long time. She does not do email, Facebook, or texting. She doesn’t even like to phone that much.
“If we’re friends, we’ll make time for each other,” she insists.”I don’t have patience for the tiny keyboard and fancy stuff. Let’s cut to the chase. If we want to hang out, let’s not pretend to just write what we feel or tell news we can finish fast. I’ll meet you at 10:30 this Saturday.”
I know her history and that who she was in her twenties still exists minus the heavy existential angst or cumbersome baggage. She has had to contend with many labels over time. But she is who she truly seems to be. She has gotten older, sure. A little heavier, fine lines on her strong face. And she has mellowed by her own accord. But her values and beliefs have been central to her character as long as I have known her. Her boldness and big heart. Her realness. My unfabricated friend. She doesn’t have an urge to cover up who she is, nor to evade harder truths. She offers up her personhood with a dash of humility and often laughs at herself: Here I am, nothing more, nothing less.
Time changes us in subtle ways, but not the intrinsic essence of who we are. Our values and habits are carried with us into stormy or sunny weather, from highs to lows. If they work well, we keep them; if not, we can exchange them for something that better fits who we are as we mature. But we are likely known by them wherever we go, even years later. Any parent can tell you this: we know our children’s strengths and quirks in babyhood and they intensify or jell as each year passes. A core personality was present from the start. Even if behaviors can be learned and unlearned, then recreated, that central personhood somehow remains faithful to infant beginnings. Of course, big events–natural and otherwise– can remake people to some degree. Cataclysmic change like something miraculous or monstrous shakes the personal core. Transformation of a profound sort may reorder the whole person, even appear unrecognizable to others. But it is just as possible that the essence that was original comes forward, even more pronounced. That kernel of personality revives and triumphs.
Many, even most, people have a work persona and a private life persona. Like my friend noted above, I have heard I don’t show such distinctions. You might not have known many personal details when at work (boundaries), but I was not effecting some other incarnation of myself–I’d share what felt right. When I demonstrated public speaking skills in my job, you can be assured I also like to talk at home, hopefully with precision, always with my hands dancing and with feeling. Conviction. If I was a persistent, hard worker at the office, you can expect I am at home. And if I was quick to stand up for others in my work, I will do the same for you and for my family. But, too, if I disliked making errors at work, that perfectionist tendency also invades the rest of my life. When I was engrossed in work I sometimes forgot the passage of time; I commit the same faux pas in my non-work life, sometimes not aware of what’s going on. My irritation can spring up no matter where I am, but I work to tame it so it might idle with a purr more than roar. If I am having issues at home, feel sad or overtired when I go to work or events, you will note it if not always mention it. My eyes will tell you the truth. It’s how and who I am. I will do my job here or there, but I’m not a good faker and don’t want to waste time pretending. Living is much better when I am just myself being present.
We take ourselves with us wherever we go, right? (See A.A. Milne’s “Us Two”, a poem both fun and wise about Pooh being wherever Pooh goes.). I’d rather take along someone–me or you– I know well.
And who wants to be simply labelled, misread, lost in translation? Do we ever benefit from presenting ourselves as individuals we are not? What will an employer think (and do) when he/she discovers that resume and interviewee are not what was expected? How will true intimacy develop when, after many hours spent together, a couple still play hide-and-seek, give confusing clues, leave out the important stuff? More interested in subterfuge? That’s a sort of entertainment, not meaningful engagement. It can be risky. Come to a bad end. Unless you are a sociopath, this is not what most people want.
The ability to pair emotion with thought, keeping them parallel at times and merging them at others, may be distinctly human. They help inform us of our experiences for our understanding but also others’. When I visit social media, I’m not sure either gets across too well. I am confused at times what people choose to share. Amused…at times horrified. And what does “liking” something mean, anyway? That one is okay with it, i.e., that it is not offensive? That it resonates or pleases or impresses? I have a sister who has conversations on Facebook and it delights me–this is typically not the place to indulge in lengthy sharing but she is not educated in the accepted ways and means. She may never care, either. So she talks to people– tells little stories, responds in some detail, as if you are sitting across from her. Is it annoying to others? Maybe, but seemingly not much. People do answer her and “like” her offerings. She makes me chuckle and I know she is being just who she is–interested in many topics and others and intelligent, fun, open.
My son, Josh, has been spending more time with me and the stepfather who raised him since his natural dad died. It is amazing. I used to leave him voice mail, text him to get back to me, wondering how he was, what was going on. He would call back at some point and be glad to see me as he could but there was a sense of a pressure, the time crunch. I was guilty at times, as well, when I had more “absolutely must do” lists. Now I feel like I am getting to know him even more and he feels the same. He’ll call me (before I get around to it now) at least once a week. We gab for an hour or two. Josh lives fifteen minutes away but, hey, we have things we want to note and wonder over, tales to tell right then.
He’s asked to do more with us. Not only bring over his adored children for a day. We all go places together again like we did when he was a youth. Museums, parks, hikes, movies, out for a fine meal. He comes to our home and invites us to his more often. He shares his art and music, experiences at work and home. And he talks from his heart and soul. I know this adult child; he care to tell me his truths. He hears me, too. Sure, we do text, but much less. He recently turned on his Facebook account again after having it off a long time. (If you want to reach me, you know where I live or have my number, he noted.) I like many of his posts and he likes mine. The bigger picture is more interesting.
It may seem easier to be semi-anonymous, to keep one’s identity separate and protected. What is there to lose in a superficial, brief update with those we don’t know well? There is a time and place, of course, for everything. I’m not advocating for greater loss of privacy, or that people fling innermost struggles and epiphanies into the social stratosphere. (You can blog like I do and take a chance with others who may empathize and have their thoughts to add.) Or you can stay on the surface. Share something invalid or extraneous. I get it. I just not what works well for some of us in the final analysis. I also want to note your expression. Take a reading on mood. I want to be a part of your happiness or consternation or wonder, in person whenever I can.
Loss can jar us and bring us back to who we truly are and alter priorities. But we can learn to slog through the morass to see dawn blossom, our sky’s vibrant palette revealed in increments. It will remind you time here is too short. We have daily chances to be who we want and need to be as well as love and be loved. Right now. If you are thinking of someone, why not call, make a date to visit, stop by spontaneously if possible? Bring them your best if you can. Make opportunity happen.
I hope you will make embrace the life you alone do own. Create it bit by bit. Turn the inside outward, see what happens. If you have forgotten what you feel deeply, what your passions are, take a moment; remember. That you love brilliant, fragrant blossoms in your rooms or that antique browsing provides stimulation and peace–that you want to sink your toes in the sand and ocean more or read for fun, not just knowledge. Rediscover; take someone else on the journey. Give yourself due respect, just as you do your dearest friends. Don’t just “like” something out there–get inside the moment as it deserves. Live as you know you are meant to and take time to celebrate others face-to-face along the way. Assume your own identity and find it good.
(Note: The photo is mine, of a daughter–she seems to know how to claim her identity with verve! We accompanied her and her husband to the Oregon Country Fair, an event that is peculiar to our state–quite a interesting, zany experience for her parents. Blessings, A.)