For most of my life, I have been defined by labels. And truthfully, that’s merely a symptom of the world we live in. Think about it – how many parties or dates have you been to where the first question that pops out of your mouth is, “So, what do you do?”
As a collective, we define ourselves by the things we do. We are mothers, fathers, students, teachers, employees, employers, friends, lovers. The list goes on and on. Mid-way through our lives we may have collective dozens, even hundreds, of these “things” – enough to fill up an entire resume for a life well lived.
But why do we do this? Why are we so quick to place pieces of ourselves into neatly arranged boxes, moving from one label to the next?
Back was I was working as an attorney in Boston, I was big on the labels. I had spent 3 years and nearly $100,000 just so I could add a few letters at the end of my name. To me, you weren’t anybody until you had a title.
When my misery in the law inched to the surface, I did what any typical gal would do: I created more boxes.
I decided that it was alright if my Lawyer Box was a bit of a dusty mess so long as the rest of my boxes were neat and tidy. I built a Yoga Box. A Reiki Box. A Writer Box. A box for cooking, and another for being outdoors. Boxes for my relationship, my family, my mental health. Boxes for the clothes I wore and even the toothpaste I chose. Boxes, boxes, boxes.
Soon enough, I had filled enough boxes to make even the most seasoned U-Haul guy tremble.
I spent most of my life living this way. Shuffling from box to box, never allowing their contents to co-mingle. When someone asked me, “So, what do you do?” I had an answer. A list of answers, actually. If one title was good then surely ten was even better!
It took me exactly 28 years before my boxes crumbled, their contents spilling out onto the floor in a moldly, ruined mess.
They say (anyone know who this “They” is? I’d love to take them to coffee sometime) that it takes some sort of crisis for our lives to really change. It’s those moments when we hit rock bottom, when we’re staring at our bank accounts or struggling through a divorce when we can’t help but cry out one big collective, “Well, Fuck.”
Turns out, growth stems from that Fuck.
For me, it took a true act of God to evaluate my life and all the boxes I’d collected like a hoarder over the years. It took a pandemic – living in the epicenter, catching the virus, and all of the side effects that stemmed from that – for me to finally go, “Well, Fuck.”
I’d had enough, finally. Faced with a furloughed job and more hours in a day than I could possibly fill with Netflix cooking shows or Candy Crush, I knew I needed to take stock. I decided to slowly sift through the heaping disaster that was my mountain of moldly boxes.
I discovered art. I discovered teaching. I discovered yoga and meditation. I discovered goofiness and a really weird sense of humor. I discovered fear and deep-rooted pain. I discovered loss and grief. I discovered books and music. I discovered something sexy and something truly grungy. I discovered plants and gardening. I discovered learning and playing. I discovered sunbathing and long afternoons naps. I discovered journaling and therapy. I discovered all of the “things” that, collectively, made me, me.
Once the contents of my boxes were piled into one giant heap, I started to have a tough time sorting them back together. Sure, yoga teaching can obviously go in the Yoga Box, but can’t it also fit into Learning Box? Being playful is certainly a welcome addition to my Relationship Box, but isn’t also a good fit in my Teaching Box?
Then I realized: I had officially (and figuratively) boxed myself in.
I had become so hung up on the labels – the titles and the certifications and all the neat letters I could fit after my name – that I had completely forgotten who I was underneath them. If I wasn’t “doing,” then I wasn’t really anybody at all. What a messed up way of thinking, huh?
So I decided to try something new: I threw out the boxes (of course I recycled them, cmon’).
In their place, I began to consider all of their contents, separately and as part of the whole. I found that I was a phenomenal teacher because I am a dedicated student. I learned that I am a loving partner because I am in crazy, stupid love with myself. I discovered that I am who I am because of the relationship between these things, not the things themselves.
This is polarity in its simplest form. The idea that our growth and our sense of self is formed within the ebbing and flowing of energy between, instead of apart.
I am not any of these labels. Not a single one of them. What I am is a human with a soul. I can name that soul Elizabeth and that human form can do a heck of a lot of things…but that’s not who I am.
I am, me. I am the beautiful mess of dumped out boxes lying on the floor. I Am, and so are you.