This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!’
`I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.'”
Alice, as in Wonderland, is caught up in one of our universal human dilemmas — explaining ourselves. The problem? Who we are is not fixed, and it can’t be easily explained to someone else or even to ourselves.
But we are not always as lost as Alice. Consider your bio or your resume. I wrote a short biography of myself recently for my website. It was supposed to be brief, but I’ve lived long enough that the trouble was in knowing what me to put in, what me to leave out. Then when my office manager transferred my biography to another website which had a different purpose, it didn’t quite feel right there. So I changed it, to fit the context. Like Alice, I had several iterations to choose from.
Resumes? The same thing. We tailor them to the job we are going for. We present ourselves as a good fit for a prospective employer. At resume time, we are all Alice, before the caterpillar, being asked “And who are you?” and we stand and deliver that we are an Alice that will fit in caterpillar’s world. And in that moment, we profess, to know ourselves. Fine, all is well, welcome to selling yourself. It’s appropriate and so professional to offer up a me-for-them on 24 pound linen paper with a water mark, a well-edited self that briefly presents the me of me that fits the them of them. “Make a good impression,” says my mom, your spouse and her best friend Tom as we all head out the door for the interview — “Knock ‘em dead!”
But dead or not, at the interview or the funeral, there is yet, the Alice-dilemma. Someone may think I am this, or another may eulogize me as that, and I may myself put this or that on the fine paper , but who am I really? Who am I to me? Who am I when I-as-caterpillar asks me-as-Alice, “Who are you?” In other words, who am I employing when I employ myself? This identity is more difficult to get a hand on. It’s harder, penning the slippery, holistic, authentic day-to-day resume, the one we never write but always live, in front of ourselves and others.
My wife, Linda, is a survivor. Now there’s a label that offers an identity many people own. She grew up with a dad who said nothing too many times in a row after muttering nothing and yelling again nothing while devotedly popping another top off another beer after the beer just before the last one. One way Linda survived was to find her place among the stacks — books, and films in a place of something, of resources, a library. She found a career in storing and organizing help, information, resources. The result? She is an interlibrary loan specialist and a phenomenal resourcer of research professors and students. Have a need for a book or an article? “Call her.” She’ll get it for you or find out where you can get it. So while a support group might think of her as a “survivor,” she is really, through and through, a thriver. Contexts change; we change; labels change. Is she a child of an alcoholic parent, always? Is recovery always. How long does the past define us? Only as long as we let it.
I’ve noticed that people tend to like slice-of-the-pie assessments — “survivor, vet, precocious, slow, hot, not.” They don’t so much like the longer, nuanced, whole-pie critique, except when they write their memoirs. Most people go for the quick labels: “cute, bright, slut, jerk, fun, good girl, bad boy, smart ass.” What are these really? Short hand idenitfications, stereotypes within the stereotypes of the stereotype. Some one told me recently, “You’re smart.” I thought, “Thin slice of me. You just haven’t seen me dumb, but sometimes I am.” Maybe I just haven’t let them see me dumb. I am, as we all are, a walking contradiction — smart here, dumb there, good here, bad there. Of course, obvious, sure — “Get real.”
I want to. I do. I do want to be authentic, and with authentic people, in the moment, congruent, projecting who we are and have been and still can be. This even means being honest about the me of not me and the them of the essential them. Paul, the radical Christian interrogator of the self, in one of his finest letters wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Touche! Paul has it right. He is not always the person he wants to be, and I, like him, do not always act out the me-of-me and the me-I-want-to-be. And so when I define myself, this must be included. Every resume needs an, “If-you-want-a-different-twist-on-everything-you-just-read-then-talk-to-Frank category. Or perhaps we should add “Blunders” with dates and references.
The other day a girl told me that she was in recovery from abusing alcohol and drugs. I told her that in high school and college I had done too much drinking too, and had to move away from that to figure out who I was on my own, without a little help from my friends. As I confessed, I was writing my resume for her, an honest one, a human one, one that she could understand. I like that, authenticity. Who am I? I am a person very much like everyone.
And this gets at one more thing I’m learning — not to listen too much to talking caterpillars wherever they appear, but to look after something much more important, helping the them of not me figure out the them of the essential them. This works, nicely, in diverting the soul from excessive introspection. I live best not storying a self, not inventing a self, but instead spending time reflecting back to other selves who they might yet prove to be.
The other day, I happened on an ordinary thing, that later turned weird, a black mustard plant in the uplands down by the Sweetwater Salt Marsh who was freaking out. She was a beauty, a Cruciferae, yellow and spring green with long shapely roots, but she was so upset. She was out of it really, insanely exclamatory, “Wow upon double wow and wow squared!” she gushed madly, her eyes bent on a black and yellow Swallowtail butterfly who was flapping home to the cathedral arch of a Sweet Fennel.
It didn’t turn out so well. I was told later, that when this mustardy beauty could take it no more, she grew all crazy for the air and ripped herself from the ground. And it was said by those who know that she proceeded across the marsh, beating the breeze apart with her quickly withering leaves, and with dirt still trailing off her roots, that she crashed into the ground only about 1oo feet from where she came.
“Oh!” I grieved for her and for all other selves not happy within the boundary of themselves, and then I went and sat down with Alice again to hear her out.
Later in the evening, I wrote the tragedy up and posted it on my blog.
Then I kicked back, stretched my long, spotted body, nibbled a leafy snack, checked the feedback from my maxillae, and thought, “Now this is the me of the essential me.”