Who we are, who we aren’t, who we can be

From the moment we’re born — earlier if our parents are so inclined — we are identified by an attribute.

We’re either a boy, or a girl.

And then there’s this weird obsession about which parent we look like (as if you can tell with a newborn), but let’s just leave that alone for now.

However, boy or girl is only the first way people identify you.

Are you short or tall? Young or old? What color is your hair? Are you left- or right-handed? How much do you weigh?

What do you wear? What’s your hairstyle? Glasses or contacts? Piercings? Tattoos?

Liberal or conservative? Somewhere in the middle?

How do you deal with others? Shy or outgoing? (Maybe both?) Kind or mean? Do you have a good sense of humor? Are you empathetic? Are you laid-back, or intense?

What do you do for a living? Are you unemployed?

Who are your favorite sports teams? What do you do for fun?

What’s your favorite kind of music?

And on and on and on.

Some of these will complement each other, while others appear contradictory. But all or part combine like a real-life Facebook personality quiz to determine how we view ourselves and how others view us.

All of that seems self-explanatory … except for the part where Facebook determined my true home state is Massachusetts because I used “rotary” (the term in Massachusetts, where I live) instead of “traffic circle” (what my home state of New York calls it) because that’s the state I was in at the time.

Until Jill Filipovic threw something in the mixer.

“What if you learned that your identity as you understand it was mistaken? What if your career tanked? What if your family dissolved? What if your very idea of yourself as a good person because of what you do, what you give, and how you behave was fundamentally challenged?

Would you still find yourself worthy?”

— “Monday Meditation: What if it all fell apart?” Jill Filipovic, Nov. 11

She asks if we can be thankful for being human, “Not for your accomplishments or achievements. Not for your beauty or how you bring pleasure to others. Not the attributes that make you ‘good’ (your kindness, your generosity, your caring). Not for your hard work or what you’ve attained,” even though all these things are good.

I’ve been pondering the essay ever since I first read it, and I think I get what she’s trying to say, but there’s one thing I’ve found hard to get my head around.

I’m having trouble thinking of what she calls “that little flame of something that makes you human” because it’s hard to conceptualize myself as something separate from whatever attributes I possess.

If I’m not a collection of all my things, good and bad, how am I me?

Except …

The confrontation between Claire and Martin isn’t the scene in the final episode of “Fleabag” — in a show and particularly an episode that was sublime from beginning to end, that would be the very last scene — but it is the one where Claire, tired of Martin’s boorishness, tells him she wants to leave him.

Martin, desperate, is reduced to crying out, “I am not a bad guy! I just have a bad personality.” (It’s at about 1:16 in the video.)

It’s funny when you first hear it, because it sounds so ludicrous.

But it isn’t.

As his marriage crumbles in front of him, he tries to defend himself by saying his horribleness is part of him, but it’s not who he is.

And if something is just a part of him, maybe he can change it.

And maybe we can change ourselves.

Some things, we can’t change. Even though I somehow managed to be an inch taller than I thought at 45, I could hang from my arms from a rod until my shoulders ache and I’m not going to get past 5’10.”

But how much of the rest can we swap in and out like the accessories on the Mr. Potato Head my brother used to play with as a child?

You can get a new hairdo, cut it short or grow it long. You can wear different glasses, or switch to contacts. You can buy new clothes. You can hit the gym, bulk up or slim down.

It’s not just the things people can see. Not only do we (hopefully) grow as people through lived experience, we can decide we don’t like something about ourselves and try to improve.

It’s not as easy as wearing a suit on Tuesday and a Sports Illustrated sweatshirt and sweatpants on Thursday; it often takes a lot of work.

But we have so much capacity to change and improve, as long as that “little flame of something that makes you human” is lit.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Who we are, who we aren’t, who we can be

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