Header Image by John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.
When Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, one of the many peculiar creatures she meets is the caterpillar. After initially ignoring her, the caterpillar asks Alice a rude question: “Who are YOU?” Who indeed! Alice struggles to answer. She has already experienced so many bewildering changes she no longer knows what to say.
Who are you? To some degree, it is a trick question. The question implies that there is a definite answer, and that simply isn’t true. We all have multiple identities. They change and evolve as time passes. Many of us claim identities that don’t quite fit the facts. Some of that is innocent, in a way, since we often deceive ourselves about this issue.
For much of my life I had an identity that seemed credible to others and was comforting to me. Then one day, like Alice, I experienced so many changes that I totally lost my ability to answer the caterpillar’s question. I have spent almost two decades developing a new answer to the question. By now I have constructed a new identity, using pieces left over from the wreckage of former identity but mostly based on fresh insights.
There are conventions to help us answer people who ask us who we are. A century ago it was common to identify by referring to church affiliation or participation in service clubs. One of my grandmothers identified as a Methodist. The other was a proud member of the Loyal Order of Moose.
In earlier times people were identified by where they lived. Biblical scholars claim we know much about Jesus if we remember he was a Nazarene. I have recently learned that I am (and always will be) a Minnesotan.
Most people, when asked who they are, start by referring to their occupation. I am intrigued by the ways this varies. For some people, it is impossible to separate their identity from their work. For others, how they make money has nothing to do with their true character. Increasingly, people define their identity by their recreational interests.
Many people—but I think especially women—define themselves in the context of their immediate family. Ask who they are and they answer with information about their husband and/or children. And yet for some people, the roles of wife and mother are irrelevant to any useful understanding of their unique identity.
I smile to remember how my father characterized himself the night he met the woman who became his wife (and, a bit later, my mother). He said he was an artist who rode in cavalry charges on weekends. Both facts were true. What he did not say was that he became a cavalryman as a way of proving he was not gay. To be fair, he was probably not
sufficiently self-aware to know that about himself at the time.
Modern understanding of personality has been impacted by therapy so profoundly that many people use concepts from counseling when expressing their identity. Who are you? One answer that might be useful is provided by Meyers-Briggs. In that context, I am an ENFP on a good day but an INFP on a more typical day.
It is relatively easy to describe identities if we are allowed to use an unlimited number of words. What is far more challenging is compressing the description until we are left with a handful of essential truths that reflect the essence of a person.
As an example, let me introduce my friend, the 92-year-old woman I write each morning. Who is she? She is a reader, a donor and a traveler. There is far more to know about her, of course: mother, widow, former university administrator, avid student of history, and so forth. But I suggest “reader, donor and traveler” define her unique and essential character. Anything I might add to a definition of her personality would have to come after those first three characteristics.
Reader. She reads voraciously, especially history and social commentary. The word “reader” also reflects a commitment to lifelong learning. Her greatest fear is that she might lose her sight. Books have been her main source of solace in the years since her husband passed away.
Donor. My friend addressed a midlife crisis by simplifying her life radically. She and her husband sold their South Minneapolis home and built a primitive house in a valley in southeast Minnesota. Their new home had no bathroom, running water or furnace. It was such a cheap place to live that my friend and her husband could donate to causes close to their hearts, two people of modest means expressing generosity on a scale normally associated with wealthy people.
Spiritual voyageur. My friend was raised as a judgmental sort of fundamentalist Christian. With the passing of years she became more tolerant and progressive. An abhorrence for sin morphed into a compassion and a deep concern for social justice. My friend often refers to her “voyage” as a person of faith. To her, it is the single most consequential fact of her life.
The caterpillar became a butterfly, although she is too modest to claim that.
Who are YOU?