A few weeks ago I was invited to a potluck. Except for the hostess my eating companions were strangers. Regardless, they were easy to get to know in that informal party way: conversation flowed in and around the joys of life as we talked of eating, travelling and humorous happenstances. I was enjoying myself when, in dialogue with an otherwise lovely man, he asked me how I filled my days. Now while I admit it is neither an offensive question nor, really, an invasive one, it still took me by surprise and made me somewhat irritated. Perhaps it was the energy behind it but what I heard was a variation of the age-old: “what do you do for a living”. Not only did I not expect it but I didn’t want to answer. Oh, sure I could have told him what I did on that particular day: baked bread and went for a long walk but that wasn’t what was being asked. He wanted to know my profession.
When I got over my surprise I felt my vocal chords tighten and my belly do a minor twist. I knew my reactions to be strong and perhaps unreasonable but still, there was something there that bade me to listen to them. In response, therefore, I was vague and then joked about my evasiveness in suggesting I was a gangster—incognito. We laughed but soon my cannot-tell-a-lie integrity betrayed me and I responded that I was a BodyMind therapist and writer. We chatted for a bit longer, me with discomfort, him with nonchalance, until we thankfully drifted away. I let the conversation go and went back to enjoying the business of partying: good food; laughter and other in-the-moment joys.
On the bus ride home I thought back on that particular conversation. What, I asked myself, made my body react so strongly? In answer, and regardless of the man’s seeming innocence, it brought up questions about my identity—who am I? This question is one that has been central to a rather long period of self-reflection. It started last year, a few months before I turned fifty and has gathered steam to the point where I am almost loathe to pigeon-hole myself into anything. I have discovered in a powerfully visceral way that my identity is somewhat nebulous and, specifically, that I am much more than what I do and, paradoxically, much less.
About ten years ago, I did my first “who am I?” exercise. I am sure it is familiar to many of you but to summarize, it is when you sit in front of a witness and answer the “Who am I?” question for about twenty minutes. It is a simple exercise but quite profound. It reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges’ last words in his short story, The Immortal: I have been Homer; shortly I shall be No One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall b all men; I shall be dead. In other words, if I interpret Borges correctly, we are everything and therefore, nothing; all human traits, all emotions and capabilities lie within us. To identify with one aspect is to potentially negate another but to identify with all aspects ultimately has no meaning.
Since I was fifteen, I have held thirty-six different jobs … in twelve different fields. The longest tenure continues to be my bodymind practice, the shortest was a stint at Safeway for six weeks. If I had to count on working experience as my identity I would be giving Sybil a run for her money. And that does not even include my non-paying identities of daughter, sister, aunt, baker, hiker and lover of good books. The list goes on.
In the past I often over-identified with jobs or career manifestations. I was what I did; I did what I was. This was especially true with my therapeutic work. Then, some years back, I experienced a steep decline in clients: they stopped coming. Without my work, I was, or at least felt I was, nothing. It affected both my mental and physical health; I felt lost, confused and abandoned.
This rather melodramatic event along with some other intense personal relationships was what propelled me into researching codependency. After years of soul searching and then writing and teaching about the subject I returned to health and, funny enough, the clients returned. It is interesting then to note that this return of identity questioning has climaxed into a time that once again coincides with a slowing down of my practice. Who am I?
It was hard at first, this revisiting of an old issue but ultimately, it has proved rewarding. It’s like the return of an old acquaintance who once was tedious but now is tolerable due to stronger boundaries and a deeper trust in the journey of life. Despite the fact that I have had to get a part-time job to support my budget, I am not at the “depth of despair” nor on the door to burnout as I was during the first round when my business slowed down. Oh sure, I went through some periods of self pity and bouts of “why me?” but the bottom line is that my identity hasn’t changed with the vagaries of my practice. As Popeye once said: I yam what I yam. This moment I am a blog writer and later I will be a walker. An hour ago I was a BodyMind practitioner and tomorrow I will bake bread and then go on to my cashier job at RONA. I am many things—a myriad of things—yet, at the same time, none of these things. I am just me.