How do you relay who you are? Shauna Niequist shares a thought provoking story that will make you think twice about how you identify yourself.
A friend is leaving her job this month. She’s been working since high school in various jobs—some she’s loved, some she’s tolerated. But for a variety of reasons, it seems clear that now is the time to order her days differently—focus on some things she’s never been able to, with the fullness of her work and parenting and just regular life schedule. It won’t be forever, probably. She’ll find another job she enjoys, next year or the next, maybe, but she has this little window of time to live a really different way, to learn new things, to rest and play and read and create. From the outside, this sounds like a dream. I love this idea. Our friends are cheering her on like crazy—take it and run, pal! Dive into it! Love it! And she will, but in a moment of vulnerability, she asked, in a small voice, who will I be if I’m not incredibly productive? Who will I be without what I do?
And that’s the question.
That’s why change is sometimes so hard for us. Because the things we do can sometimes become, along the way, the things we are. The things that define us and give us a sense of identity.
Years ago, when I was newly pregnant with Henry, I was fired from a job I was very, very attached to—in healthy and absolutely unhealthy ways. I was at a barbecue with friends I didn’t see often, and one of them asked, “Shauna, I know I should know this, but what do you do?”I felt my face flush and I started gesturing senselessly before I even started talking. I stumbled over my words to try to tell him what seemed like a million important things that I felt he must know about me: “Well, I did do something, but now I don’t—I mean, like for a decade I worked in ministry, and probably I will again, because, you know, that’s kind of my thing, and I’m just not doing it now, not because I’m pregnant, because pregnant people work, you know, and I love to work, and that’s really like an important part of who I am, so…” He interrupted me gently. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “What I asked was when the baby is DUE.”
Oh, right. Right. When the baby is due, a perfectly normal thing for a friend to ask at a party, a one word answer required. But instead, I spilled out all my weird and unprocessed identity issues, finding myself for the first time stripped from a job title, utterly unable to define or recognize myself without it.
Over time, I began to understand that my job title was not actually the same thing as my fundamental identity. Over time, I began to understand myself as a daughter, a friend, a wife, a sister. A book worm, a creative person, a lover of food and hospitality. I began to understand that what’s printed on our business cards is just one facet of who we are.
But I clearly didn’t know that then. I looked at that poor man I had just verbally vomited all over, and I said, “Oh, sure. October.” And then we both raised our burgers to our mouths and ate in silence for a while, defeated by our failed attempt at normal social interaction.
Titles are safe. They’re easy. I’m a teacher. I’m a photographer. This one word tells you who I am. But for most of us, that word or label is going to change at some point. And at that point, if we’ve pasted that one word or title over our whole selves, super-glued it there, bedazzled it so that it’s the one thing people know about us, when we have to rip off that label, it will be so painful, so completely disorienting. And so this is what I’m learning: wear your title or role very loosely. And wear your identity—as a child of God, as a thoughtful friend, as an attentive listener, an avid researcher, whatever—with great confidence.
You are so much more than what you do.