As odd as it might seem, I love cemeteries, especially ones with an abundance of trees. In my Indiana hometown there is one named for its maple trees that could entice even the least morbid of folks in the fall with its stunning colors and crunchy leaves. For me, it was a sanctuary of wandering, wondering, and the occasional unabashed cry, when one needs the space for that sort of thing. The Davis cemetery (that I obviously looked up in the first month of being here) did not disappoint. As I reveled in some of the plants and statues I noticed a bench with the inscription: “’To Thine Own Self Be True’ – William Shakespeare.” I thought this an unusual quote to be in a cemetery, but the unusual tends to lure me in. So, of course, I had to sit on it and think for a while about who I am. In other words, I would like to apologize in advance for the quite self-absorbed blog post that you have found yourself reading.
When I think about what it has meant throughout my life to be true to myself, I mostly think about being obsessed with being different from everyone else. When I was a kid I usually felt like I didn’t fit in whether it was my clothing or my hair or the fact that I found gossiping about boys to be the epitome of boredom. I thought learning was fun, I tended to side with the outsider, and I could definitely be an awkward human sometimes. In response to feeling left out, I staked my identity on being different. I leaned into wearing unusual clothes and liking unpopular things and demanding that everyone see everyone else’s point of view–even if, or perhaps especially if, they weren’t ready for it.
During college I began to let some of that stuff go and practiced enjoying activities that I had previously disliked just to go against the grain. I also started playing around with what prayer could look like and trying actually to live into an identity in Christ, rather than just intellectualize one. As my family was in crisis, I was forced to find some constants in my life to build my hope on. And it sure as hell wasn’t going to be that I sure was “my own person,” as so many people had described me. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with being unique, but it certainly cannot lift up your head when the loneliness and grief of being human are threatening to drown you.
After college I worked three years at an eating disorder treatment center for girls and women. During this time it seemed like I fell into a role in of being the quirky staff who showed people that it’s okay to be different or to just be yourself. I am grateful that these girls who were catastrophically struggling with identity seemed to receive this message, but I, perhaps selfishly, wondered at times if this was going to be my label for life: the different one.
Having spent the last 25 years in the same place and having significant life-long connections there, it’s been interesting for me to meet new people at different times of my adult life to see how they perceive me (essentially, to gauge if I have actually grown in the ways I think I have). I was excited to meet my new housemates and quickly learned that they are all caring, hard-working, and fascinating individuals. I truly enjoy them and am looking forward to our time together. While sitting on the Shakespeare bench and thinking about identity, I realized that in the time I have known my new friends, “different” or “unique” have yet to make the list of adjectives they have used to describe me. And, although I have been working on trying to base my identity in being a child of God for a long time, something has clicked for me in the last month. It just doesn’t seem important anymore for people to think I am interesting or colorful or have good taste in unusual films. And the most obvious and freeing part of it all is that now I can stop feeling conflicted about all the things that have defined me and instead allow them to take their natural back seat in my life. Looking back, I can see that my need to be special has hindered the flow of the Spirit in my relationships. Ego has a tendency to do that, after all.
So what does being true to myself look like without it all riding on being my own person? I will still (somewhat reluctantly) claim being a 4 on the Enneagram (The Individualist). And I will still enjoy feeling free to live outside and inside the mainstream – good gifts are everywhere. But, as Pastor Jocelynn reminded us during orientation, all personality tests “are all already false.” When we can see our characteristics and roles as tools for insight and growth and delight in our diversity, we can enjoy those parts of ourselves without expecting them to prove something to the world. In other words, good gifts make bad gods.
In his many writings, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr (one of my favorite spiritual gurus) talks about the true self and the false self as a way to understand identity. The false self is any way we identify ourselves other than being in union with God. For me, these have been things like daughter, student, mental health worker, pianist, outsider, lover-of-the-color-purple, etc. Rohr talks about how these things are not necessarily bad and are certainly an important place to start. But none of these things can get at ultimate reality. The true self then is our divine image or belovedness to God. When we can tap into this belonging and enough-ness, we are finally defined solely by our very being itself –not anything we do or say or own. We can then accept the paradox of being both dust and divine, both nothing and somehow in connection with everything that exists. It’s all the upside down ways of Jesus and being at peace regardless of circumstances. In the moments that I accept this truth, it affects everything, from how I treat strangers to how I see bugs to how much I allow myself to procrastinate.
So, who am I?
Someone who knows who she WANTS to be. Someone who is trying to realize more and more who she already IS.
Someone who’s trying to let some things go.
And get some other things going.
All of these things I hope to ponder from time to time on my little cemetery bench throughout the next ten months. Thank God that we’re just getting started and that it’s an enchanted universe. Amen.
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral