Weekly Edgework #25 - Dec. 20, 2004

Be Who You Is

Others tell one who one is. Later one endorses, or tries to discard, the ways others have defined one. It is difficult not to accept their story…All too often we learn to be whom we are told we are (R. D. Laing, in The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketchem, 116).

It is a lonely, and sometimes desperate moment, when one discovers that one’s true identity is not what one has been told by others. In that moment one has to make a choice either to become authentic or to continue living a lie. Unfortunately, many opt for a continued, duplicitous lifestyle, their outer lives out of sync with who they really are on the inside.

Parents sometimes make the mistake of defining their children in their own image. But to make the assumption that one’s children should become duplicates of their parents is to deny them their individuality. Of course parents need to be guides and mentors for their children, but always with the view toward drawing out and developing who they are, not what parents think they should be. If this doesn’t happen their children will be forced to live on two levels – one, the way others have defined them, and the other, who they really are. Or most likely they will live with an uncertain and frustrated identity.

It is really quite sad to see a father force his son to attempt to be the hockey player he always wanted to be – especially if that son is not athletic by nature. Or a mother insisting that her daughter become an accomplished musician like herself when the daughter is drawn instead to expressing her individuality through sports. What are children to do when an authority figure in their lives tells them who they are to be - when their protests go unheard and their uniqueness is unrecognized?

But it is not only adults telling children who they are to be. Often, even as adults, we allow our peers to define us. Sometimes our need to belong is so strong that we are willng to sacrifice our individuality just to fit in. We may even think of this as a very spiritual exercise of humility. To say, “Whatever…” is equated with considering others better than ourselves. It takes a self-defined, and therefore authentic person, to offer a dissenting opinion in a discussion without feeling threatened. If we allow others to define us we will always be looking for the cozy comfort of consensus. Once we begin defining ourselves, an opposing point of view loses the threat and discomfort it once held.

It seems to me that at least one of the tasks of growing up is to fight our way through the underbrush of what others think we should be – to hack out a clearing around ourselves that defines who we are in fact. One would think that this should happen early in life so that most of one’s life can be lived authentically – the outer and inner selves easily blending with each other. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Some people live their entire lives according to the dictates of who others say they are.

Sometimes, it seems, we cannot become ourselves until certain persons who have defined us die. I have frequently observed adults in their 40s or 50s make significant changes in their lives once their parents have passed away. A friend in her mid-fifties recently cut her hair for the first time, something she had always been told she could not do, but something she had long desired to do. When I met her for the first time after “the cutting” she emanated a radiance I had not seen before. Her inner and outer self were in agreement and it showed.

But it is hard work to consciously sort through and then either endorse or discard that which we have been told we are. For some this process seems too reckless even to attempt. Yet it is a process that must happen if we are to become authentic persons. I have discovered, however, that it is quite impossible to convince someone else to begin moving toward authenticity – that is, sorting through the way they have been defined. You will invariably be accused of being judgmental and endure the consequences no matter how gentle and sincere you are in your approach. To this day I have some enduring enemies because at some point in the past I openly encouraged them to become more authentic. It seems that persons must discover on their own that their outer and inner selves are not in agreement. To be told directly simply serves to enhance the discord in their lives so obvious to others.

The best way to entice people toward authenticity is to be authentic oneself. What was it about Jesus at the well in Samaria that allowed the woman he met there to regain a sense of wholeness, to discard the identity that others had given her. I believe it was the utter authenticity Jesus displayed. He knew who he was. Whenever we know who we really are we create an invitation for others to become who they are.

In the year following my father’s death I went through a very intense process of discarding some of the ways in which I had been defined. It was a difficult journey, and one for which I needed the help of others. I am still involved in that process. I suspect I will be until I die. While this is hard work, the pay off is a greater sense of unity between my inner and outer selves.

While going through some of this soul-wrenching work, a dear friend who was on a similar journey used to say, Be who you is, because if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t. Then she would burst into a laugh that had us all in stitches in no time. She was a mountain gal from Northern Washington State, so it was not difficult to accept the colloquial nature of her favorite expression. Thanks Dawn. It is a truth I carry with me on my continuing journey toward greater authenticity.