Some years back I wrote an essay called Learning The Language. The piece reflected on my experiences living abroad, learning to navigate a foreign country and culture with a somewhat limited grasp on the language.
The essay wasn’t so much about learning to speak a foreign language, as it was about learning who I was (and who I was not) in the context of that new environment but also in the context of the world and my life.
I was in my twenties, recently graduated from college, recently married. I was trying to find my place in the world, as if my identity were a destination. But now I know that identity is not a destination, but rather a journey.
Identity is fluid, not finite. And that is very good news! It means we can change our minds, make different choices, and consciously move in the direction we want to go next.
In this age of accelerated change, our roles are continually shifting, sometimes without our permission, other times by choice. How much will the world change in a person’s lifetime if she lives to be 90 or 100? Quite a lot. So, in a sense, we will always be Learning the Language.
Since she was very small my granddaughter Evalyn enjoyed painting with me in my studio. Over the years I’ve seen her creations evolve from messy blobs of black and red watercolors to quite sophisticated sketches and designs.
One day when she was maybe four, I took her to visit a friend of mine at his art gallery. I introduced them, “This is my friend Stan. Stan is an artist.”
Evalyn gasped. “I’m an artist too! And so is grandma!” she exclaimed. The label artist was something that connected the three of us, a shared identity. Oh, the wisdom of children!
Stan makes his living through art. A few of my paintings have sold, but it’s not how I make my living. Evalyn was too young to worry about jobs and money, yet what she expressed that day was simple truth. If you create art, you are an artist.
So maybe we should think differently about how we label ourselves. We are so much more than our careers; we are multi-faceted.
Crisis or Adventure
When we link our identity solely to jobs and money, what happens during those periods when we’re unemployed, under-employed, or retired? Do we lose our identity? Do we cease to exist or have value?
Identity crisis is defined as: a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their role in society
What if we learned to think of this period of uncertainty as an adventure? I’d rather have an adventure than a crisis, wouldn’t you? If we maintain an attitude of wonder and open ourselves up to new possibilities, we can have an identity adventure.
Showing Up Whole
Recently I had the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with my greatest teacher, my daughter. We looked back on some of our experiences – both good and bad – and we reflected on how all of it has served us in some way.
Even the most painful events can become a catalyst that moves us toward something better. Though we may not be able to see it at the time.
We identified many good things in our lives today that could be linked to painful events or mistakes we had made. Experiences, good and bad, shape our identities.
That day my daughter talked about owning the entirety of her life and “showing up whole”. I love that perspective! You can see why she’s my greatest teacher.
Owning our lives allows us to acknowledge and appreciate the past, but not get stuck there. Individual events whether painful or beautiful become pieces of the whole, like tiles in a mosaic, each tile contributing to but not telling the whole story of who we are.
Title vs. Identity
In my corporate life, I’ve had many different job titles. None of them told the story of who I am or was. They were just a position on an org chart, a convenient way to tell others where I sat in a hierarchy. Who cares, right?
These days I work as a coach and a writer. As a coach, I work with people to help them identify and create the life they want. And I’m a writer because I write every day.
But I have other identities that are important, and that have nothing to do with work. When I create lyrics for my nephew’s musical compositions, I am a lyricist. I’m also a friend, neighbor, mother, poet, painter, and a not-very-good gardener, a tango dancer. At the gym, I’m the woman who swims a mile nonstop.
Who I really am is the person I take into the world every day. No title required. If I don’t like who that person is or how she’s behaving, I always have the option to point her in a new direction.
It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. – E.L. Doctorow
I love that quote! Doctorow was talking about writing stories, but I think the same is true of life. Sometimes you’re moving slowly and the road is steep. Other times you’re cruising along the beach.
The whole journey belongs to you. It all becomes a piece of your identity. Keep your eyes on the road and enjoy the ride.
Call to action: Who are you? Make a list. Who are you in your family, community, work, leisure time? When you’re all alone?
What other roles or identities would you like to add to your life? Are there any that you no longer want? Who would you like to be next?