Who Do You Think You Are?

I have to be on nodding terms with the old me, because I’m too tired to fight her.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” — Joan Didion

I was forty-four years old when I wrote “writer” into the occupation field on a questionnaire.

It was my forty-fourth birthday, actually, and I was filling in paperwork prior to getting a mammogram (because in #lockdown, you find weird ways to celebrate). To be fair, I make just about nothing from my writing, income-wise, but I’m also not currently practicing pediatric dentistry either, and what are they going to do at the breast clinic — call the career cops? So, in an act of defiance or brazenness or just not caring anymore, I wrote writer.

I’m coming to realize that I don’t know who I am. Or at least I don’t know exactly how to define who I am.

Part of the reason for this confusion is that all parameters I’ve used to define myself keep changing. I grew up Southern, and American, and Evangelical, within the sway of one political party, and as a rule-following good girl. Now, I’m (in the process of becoming) Australian and therefore a dual citizen; I have flitted between denominations; I read books that have been banned by Lifeway; and my husband asks me most days if I “really think that’s appropriate.” 

I am, in short, all over the place. If wayfinding is, as Maui described it, “knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been,” then I seem to have run off-course because nothing in my early years indicated that I’d be living across the world from everything and everyone I ever knew (or married to a Californian, for God’s sake). Though there are some parts of myself that never seem to change, so many of them have — enough to make my head spin.

There are times when, like in these New Yorker cartoons, I’d file numerous “Lawsuits Against My Past Selves Over Their Trivial Mistakes,” and there are (more, I think) times when there is wisdom to be found in the rubble of my regrets, redemption that has led me to where I am. One minute I’m Mary quietly pondering all these things in her heart; the next I’m Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope.

I have identity whiplash.

What’s worse, I’m really passionate about the things that have made me My Self. So when Facebook sends me memories, not only do I revisit cute pictures of my kids as their younger selves, but I cringe in embarrassment at past political statements and decidedly unfunny jokes. My path, though deviating from where I’ve been, is littered with reminders of those places. I have to be on nodding terms with that version of myself, because I’m too tired to fight her.

It’s possible I think about myself too much — but that, too, is a difference from the time when I used to only think of other people and what they thought. (Of me.) 

But isn’t introspection part of the faith journey? Exploring our interior lives, our beliefs and doubts, and, indeed, our own relationships with ourselves. As David Zahl writes in Daily Grace, there is “another aspect of what it means to live by faith: to doubt what seems obviously true about you.” For me, this has often looked like a journey between extremes — but maybe these extremes are the gift of a God who uses them to contrast with his own character, his own changelessness. 

And perhaps what stand out as extremes are simply bookends of a fuller, more nuanced journey. Katherine May may agree. In her revelatory book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, May offers healing observations through the lens of her personal narrative, including unexpected experiences like illness, homeschool, and her own neurological diagnosis. The loneliness and shock of such “interruptions” can, she contends, be moments of reset and beauty. (Not for nothing, she convinced me to embrace cold-water swimming.) During a 4am writing session illuminated by a lamp and a candle, she writes, inspired by the difference between the two light sources:

On balance, it’s where I prefer to be: somewhere in the middle. Certainty is a dead space, in which there’s no room to grow. Wavering is painful. I’m glad to be travelling between the two.

And maybe that, after all, is where I’ve spent the majority of time in this life: travelling. Between extremes, ideas, selves. Between the dead space of certainty and the pain of wavering — always moving. Maybe the very idea that I’m moving, that I’m not where I used to be, is evidence of openness. Of faith.

In Mark 7, a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus. I’ve read this story a thousand times, but this morning it slayed me as I noticed anew Jesus’ approach to this man, likely because, as the mother of a child with speech issues, I am often witness to others’ misunderstanding and my son’s resulting frustration. The Scripture says that Jesus “took him aside in private, away from the crowd.” The kindness! He “put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.” The intimacy! “Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

I have been opened too. By the brutalities of life and the kindness of Jesus, which have so often met in the same moment. God in his grace has beautifully, painfully, opened me, leaving me not where I was and, I suspect, not where I will be, bouncing between apparent extremes but somehow always remaining safe in his hand — not always knowing who I am but never able to forget who he is.

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