Being one’s self

By Clark Sidial-Whitney

We have all had those days.   You feel out of sorts and a spouse or friend or colleague may even ask if everything is ok.   It is not so much that your behaviour is erratic or that you feel ill or even moderately depressed:  you just do not feel like ‘yourself,’ you are not acting like ‘yourself,’ and you may even find yourself thinking:  “I am not myself today.”

On the flip side we likely have had those flashes when we realize that we lived a day or a moment, have been so involved in a project or a conversation and we have been completely at home in our own skin.  Someone might even say something like ‘you’ve really found your calling, you’re at the right place in your life.’  And I am not referring to some otherworldly, mystical experience.  Rather I am trying to draw attention to those moments that are what they are because they are grounded in embodied experience, and while we may be busy ‘doing’ we also are fully ‘being’ ‘self.’

I spent the better part of the past year thinking, reading and writing about vocation, calling and work within the context of part-time theological study.  For the past several months (well–you could say for the past several years), Nadia and I have been preparing to help both our children launch their post-secondary education and as it happens both will be living and studying away from home. As parents we will become school term empty-nesters.  Thoughts and questions about identity, self, and calling have  been ‘appearing’ like billboards on the foreground of my mind:  who will our children be / become?  What gifts will come to light?  What new interests, ideas and friendships will develop? How will our role as parents change?  How are identity and ‘calling’ connected?  How will all of our respective ‘selves’ change?  How will our ‘becoming’ be reflected in our ‘being’?

Kenneth Gergen  (The Saturated Self) talks about ‘identity production.’  He argues that the notion of ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ belongs to a more romantic era and that the pursuit of a particular goal that is reflective of our innermost values and identity has been replaced by a much more fluid understanding of who we are and who we can be.  As I think of the people I know who lost jobs and careers in over the past two turbulent years (this ‘self’ included), Gergen’s analysis seems not far off the mark.  Career counselors, placement firms, executive coaching:  all teach you to ‘package’ your ‘self’ so that you have a marketable professional ‘identity.’ Practically speaking this often means re-working your resume to highlight one or more aspects of your employable skill set.  And you can end up tailoring your resume for each position that you want to target.  Gergen notes that “there is little in the way of an ‘essential person’ for whom a niche is to be sought.”  We will be / become whoever we need to be /become.  And while the example here is in specific reference to ‘paid work or jobs’  Gergen also addresses the fluidity of identity and selfhood across all aspects of our lives.

Parker Palmer would disagree, I think:  at least with Gergen’s assessment that there is little to be gained in trying to address the ‘essential person.’  Palmer believes that “we observe true self in people we know and care about, and we constantly use that perception as a benchmark of their well-being.”  He also observes in one of his books that parents and educators are misguided when they encourage children to believe that they can be whatever they want to be.  He would rather, I think, that we encourage and support people in their journey to take hold of who they are meant to be.

Perhaps one way to put the question is:  are our identities produced or do they unfold from some essential 'self'?  What do you think?


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4 responses to “Being one’s self

  1. Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

    Thanks for this piece. I very much like your preference for seeing the ‘self” in a fluid and adaptive way (what is working for the person, what opens us up rather than shutting us down as we apply this self in action). Because of spending years working with people who couldn’t seem to move, to grow, to adapt, I’ve tried to see if there’s a common source of being “stuck”. As written in this blog, I think that to get to where we can practice the approach you articulate, there has to have been the development of a sufficient sense of self. This requires, I think, an early experience of loving connection, so that the person can experience enough solidity to not remain caught in fear and confusion.

  2. Dave Snelgrove

    Sir Ken Robinson has done a couple of TED lectures that speak to the need for a revolution in public education, recognizing the possibility of not sacrificing individual creativity and passion in the effort to make better workers. That feels like a poor paraphrase, but here is a link to one of the talks.

  3. Clark: I’ve never heard of either Gergen or Palmer, but I want to respond anyway because I was struck with what you had to say. I actually don’t have any emotional connection with concepts like “true self,” “being” or “becoming.” So, if I edit the Palmer quote slightly, I get “we observe people we know and care about, and …use that…as a benchmark of their well-being.” That’s consistent with my experience. So if someone I know and care about starts behaving differently, I want to offer some kind of support if I can. Is that the same as “encourage and support people in their journey to take hold of who they are meant to be”? Maybe it is.

    But maybe that’s only my perception of who I think they’re meant to be. I find I tend to react to situations, not offer direction. If someone I know well enough that I can detect patterns of behaviour (not a large group of people) starts changing, I tend not to point it out but only try to engage with the new behaviour. And that person would probably have to start discussing the changes for me to feel comfortable with talking about them. And even then, I’d have a hard time saying whether or not they were on the right track. Is that failing them in my obligations as a friend, parent, sibling? I don’t know.

    As for Gergen, I don’t know. On the one hand, I can see that any job opportunity is a chance to get in touch with skills or attributes that one didn’t properly consider previously. So to get this job you need to “package” the skill-set in the best possible way. That is useful, because it’s a chance to grow to exercise talents. And I think we all enjoy moments when we realize that what we’re doing is actually something we’re good at doing. On the other hand, I have a friend that almost never talks about her work and I get the sense that it’s not central to her “being,” the way that her faith is, the way her relationships with people are central. Did she “produce an identity” when she took on the various jobs she’s had over the years? Maybe. Was that a good or bad thing? I sure don’t know.

  4. Elizabeth Sherk

    “The Packaging of the Self”—Last night I was at a film discussion of The Single Man. I have to watch the movie again by myself to let myself enter into the grief of that man who lived in the ’60’s daily packaging himself as a professor, a neighbour, suiting over & eyeglassing over his sexuality, hiding the comfort of his most intimate relationship, & being excluded from that best friend/lover’s funeral because “he wasnt’ family”. The isolation/loneliness of the self….???

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