Both Sides Now

In last season’s finale of House, Amber whispers to House: “So this is the story you made up about who you are. It’s a nice one.” And then Kutner says, “Too bad it isn’t true.”

I’ve been thinking on that a lot this week.

I think I have reached the point where I see identity as something we construct from the experiences and influences that we accumulate. It’s not a solid invention, but it does have a certain stability to it, if you are reasonably mentally healthy. It took me a long time to see that I could be the author of that story, that I could be the one to say, “I am this and not that. I am choosing this and I am saying that this experience meant that.” And now I think I have moved past the empowered, self-actualizing stage of that discovery into murkier waters, where the ability to change and shape and edit that story makes the whole narrative a little… iffy. I don’t think that I’m fabricating it wholesale. I just see now that some judicious editing and some shots from different angles can have a dramatic impact on the story itself, so the questions of what to include and how and when become critical to understanding what the story is really about.

What is the story you make up about who you are? Is it an action-adventure? Is it a romance? A comedy? A police procedural? The Office, perhaps? Are you the hero? The antihero? A supporting cast member?

On Monday I am meeting with someone who I hope will be both friend and mentor, and possibly even job connector in the future. I haven’t met her before but she knows people who know me well. What stories does she already have? What story should I tell her on Monday? I think I probably won’t know until I get there.

Last night was a big night for me, mostly on a personal level but certainly on a professional one as well. A night seven years in the making, in fact. It wasn’t perfect, but it was real. It was almost too much to process (hence the sobbing fit in the kitchen in the middle). I think I was hoping it would hold some answers. That the story that they would tell me about myself would make sense and ring true and link so many other important moments together into a single, cohesive arc. Unfortunately I was too drunk to remember all of it, which is a damn shame. I think it did show me something about how people view me, or view my work, or even what my work has been. More importantly, I think it showed me that I can’t hope for someone else to tell me my story. All of my life I have been looking to someone else to tell me who I am and why I am and if there is one thing that I have wanted longer than anything, it is for someone to sit me down and spin me a beautiful fable about a person named K and what her life and her work and her relationships are all about. Is she really a good person? Is she worthy? Does she matter? Do her actions make anything better for anyone?

What has haunted me most from my childhood is that I don’t trust myself as the author of my own story. If someone tells me that I am bad or in the wrong, I believe it. I will usually, after years of practice, work my way back to where I started from, but those first few steps I just follow along. Conversely, I can rationalize away praise in a hot second. I can always find a negative voice to outweigh the positive. Even last night, knowing precisely how much effort and hard work went into showing me how appreciated and loved I actually am (was?) I could list off the people I suspected were being insincere or upset with me or what have you, whether that was grounded in objective reality or not. I was given the gift of being told, very publicly, that I made a difference in people’s lives and they loved me for it, and I woke up this morning being my same, insecure, inadequate self worried about how fat and flushed I must look in all of the pictures and whether last year’s resentments were still simmering and if it even matters now that my life is so different and perhaps I am not that person anymore at all. All that with a hangover and the imminent prospect of toddler swim class ahead of me, no less. What was painfully clear to me last night is that it is one thing to know that you have succeeded in creating something bigger and more beautiful than you are capable of being on your own, and another thing to watch it bloom right before you, feeling every millimeter of difference between you and your creation. I can only imagine that someday I will look at my son in the same way, and I am both dreaming of it and dreading it. It is the difference between being the flower and soil from which it grew.

Which is, right there, the story I am making up about who I am. I am soil. I am something that isn’t anything on its own, but I was able to support and grow something wonderful. But I see that is only one version of the story. A different narrator might paint me as the careful, skilled and patient gardener, who applies years of knowledge and wisdom to nurturing something delicate and new. The story I am telling myself now is that I am both of those narrators. I am looking at my story from more than one angle and in the end it is the story that I make up about who I am that matters. When I tell myself that story, about the fiber and the character and the qualities of the person I am, then I can also tell myself stories about how that person acts and behaves and impacts other people. This has been used to great effect by villains and dictators and even your common, garden variety crazies, I know. I think that’s where the people around you become kind of essential – are they telling you the same story? Is it sort of similar? Not even close?

Perhaps the reason that people who need people need them is that they need to hear their story, repeated back to them in a feedback loop that tells them where they are. An echolocation, of sorts. One of the reasons that I am struggling with this so much right now is that I don’t have my people, and I don’t know my story. I’m stuck between chapters, waiting to see how the cliffhanger resolves itself. And I’m really bad with surprises.


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