Image: Diana the Huntress. Guillaum Seignac (1870-1924)
Look at people’s profiles on their professional websites and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Notice how they describe themselves. What kinds of details do people share publicly with you? Many times it will be a description of what they do: the economic contribution they make, their “productivity,” or the knowledge they generate. In the social media spheres, their profiles include descriptions of their relations, such as mother, wife, senator. Their profiles convey their importance and worth, their right to exist and take space professionally and socially, through their productivity and their associations.
My profiles do it, too. You can read the usual professional and personal things about me on this site. Does the work I do for the graduate school at Indiana University make me worth listening to? Does it make me more important than someone who works in the service industry? Does being a wife and mother mean I make more important contributions to our society than a single, childless person? These economic and relational measures of our worth are externally defined; our categories of value to culture, employers, family members, insurance companies make ourselves legible and visible within a white patriarchal, capitalist society.
There’s another way to know ourselves and to ascribe worth to ourselves. What if we are valuable, worthy, enough because we are? Just…are. What if my life has meaning because I do things that are inherently meaningful to me, not because someone else gave them economic or social value? What if things – activities, relationships, work, tasks, hobbies, dreams – are valuable and meaningful to me because they are coherent with my values, what I think is most important to me? It was only a couple years ago, when I was in my mid-40s, more than a decade into my second job, when I started learning about my own values. This information was never explicitly taught to me.
When I first spent significant time with my colleague, Dr. Abegunde, she left with me a couple materials about her office. One of these had three questions from Frantz Fanon enumerated on it:
- Who am I?
- Am I who I say I am?
- Am I all I ought to be?
When I first saw that first question, I thought, why does this question need asking? And I enumerated all the physical descriptors of me, the professional role I have, the civically recognized relationships I maintain. I knew there was something deeper to the question, otherwise why ask it if the answer is so obvious. It took me a long time to get there.
When I strip away my job, my titles, my certifications, my marriage, my child, my friends, my belongings, what remains? When I stand on my own, what shows me my course? What helps me respond to a decision and choose my next action that’s best for me and my situation? The answer reminds me that I am an autonomous human being who is free to choose. It reminds me that I have needs, wants, desires, and dreams all of my own. (That my own needs and dreams were not part of my operating system until then is a story in a later chapter.) Yes, I have responsibilities to others in my decisions, as well as consequences to consider. But I can and should put me first on the list of considerations. Others are choosing themselves, too, why not me. The answer also reminds me to be in alignment with what is important to me.
You probably want to know what my answer to “Who am I?” looks like. In fact, there are actually visuals, the four tattoos I currently have as I write this and have gotten between 2019 and 2020. The tattoos capture many of the ideas behind Who I am. There are deeper stories about the tattoos – we’ll get to those later – but the symbology is enough for right now:
- Peacock – wise, observant, protector, nurturer, fierce, warrior
- Turtle – persistent, home wherever she is, nurturing, enduring, a source of life
- Crabapple blossom – fierce, beautiful
- Artemis – wise, strong, bold, capable
When I write my list of responses to Who am I, it looks like this:
I also want to tell you how I got to know the answer. And how the answer keeps unfolding and clarifying. I think I first started noticing Who I Am by looking more closely at the discourse others were using about me and in my presence: in an email congratulating me on a new job; a text from a close friend in response to a sob for comfort after a disappointment; an old recommendation letter from a teacher in high school; anonymous feedback I received from workshops I facilitated; emails to bosses cc’d to me thanking me for my contributions to a project. I finally had the language, given to me by others, to describe my innate values that I enacted subconsciously. I started believing the emerging themes from the kind, observant, gracious, honest things others said about and to me. And I’m starting to live by those values, choosing more deliberately based on what I want for myself and what I believe is possible for others.