How do we define ourselves?
Last year I watched an Ani DiFranco documentary in which she passionately opposes the death penalty. It has echoed frequently in my thoughts since then: How is it we can define a human’s entire worth by their single worst moment? How is it that one choice (or a series of choices culminating in a terrible act) can be the extent of how that person is valued and devalued? An entire life defined in one moment.
Not only do our impressions of negative experiences overshadow many other defining moments, but sometimes we hope to have a single achievement that will answer the question of personal worth for all time.
When I was young, I used to read books by the woodsy humorist Patrick McManus. One of his invented daydreams was that he would be selected to do nothing but polish a wooden walking stick for one year. At the end of that year, there would be accolades! The stick would be displayed for all to see as the ultimate in perfectly polished walking sticks, and he would retire happy, at the top of his game, praised for all time.
“Man, just look at that stick.” Happy sigh.
Sometimes when life is tiresome, we all just want to arrive, get a gold star signifying a life well lived, and relax.
I can define myself in so many ways – some of which are incongruent with other portions of my life. Some of these elevate me, others diminish and define as “less-than,” some even as a victim of circumstances beyond my control but for which I still feel responsible. At any time, I can choose one of these as my focus and self-definition, but that habit is myopic and inaccurate.
It interests me that there are pockets of my life my daughters know nothing about. They can’t yet relate, or they haven’t come up in conversation, it it wouldn’t yet be helpful nor purposeful. But I’m their MOM – one of the closest people to them. It seems so odd for them to only know me contextually through the things we’ve shared.
Who am I to them, right now, as opposed to how I define myself at any given moment? Who am I to you, or in relation to you? How to I re-position myself to be more known, more helpful, with an ever-more-meaningful, evolving purpose?
In my early teen years, I learned that I had a proclivity to bottle things up. Sharing the confusing emotions – the sometimes seemingly uncontrollable, hormonal anger, the thoughts that might make others feel poorly – was difficult. So I’d internalize these until they bubbled over.
My Dad began drawing me out. It was awful. Then I realized: sharing made me feel better. I felt lighter inside and more understood. The emotions were more measured and manageable when I didn’t try to suppress the thoughts that fed them. The thoughts in my head at any given time didn’t have to define my persona for all time, and talking them out – personally connecting – was intrinsically rewarding.
I’m still not very good at it – at finding the right, trustworthy people to proactively engage – or making time to share with the kind people already deeply connected to my life.
I often get lost in a sea of related thoughts and wonder, when coming briefly out of my reveries and ponderings, why strangers smile on the sidewalk or try to engage in friendly smalltalk at the store.
I’m going to keep working on being present though, because just as I learned when I was young: it takes practice, but sharing creates peace and lightheartedness. Difficult topics are lighter when known by another. Connecting is the only way to create community.
Who I am in the context of my communities can be somewhat fluid – you’ll know me through a series of impressions, assumptions, and experiences.
I want my motivation to always be inspired by the poetess Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I want to create community like the old guy in this story (the author’s father), and grow the capacity for joy in myself and others. I can’t do that by holding back, or keeping my head in the clouds, or by avoiding the smiling eyes of strangers I meet. I am not defined solely by the things I think.
Social media, for all its benefits and potential benefits, tends to make me more insular.
Let’s remember to look each other fully in the face, hug, and use our voices to talk and laugh together. The world needs that ongoing practice and connection. We’ll continue to define and re-define ourselves along the way.
Connecting can bring vulnerability, discomfort, and even pain at times, but together is better than alone. Our communities – and ourselves – need the healing that only connecting can bring.