Friday, March 28, 2008

On becoming who we are

It's not often that I write a post that is a response to another post, but sometimes the topic warrants it. Karen wrote a post on labels and what it means to be a runner, a marathoner, etc. Her post was a response to Once a runner by Jon.

I had an interesting thing happen to me yesterday. As many of you know, about three years ago I set out on a journey to change my life. I started going to the gym and over the course of several months, lost more than 70 lbs.

I had to learn to deal with people asking me questions about how I did it, and in a few cases, if I'd had surgery. I found excessive compliments embarrassing. And I almost decked the guy who asked, "So is it all real? The weight loss? The boobs? I mean, you must have had surgery, right?"

The answers were simple - and very UNsexy. No surgery. No diets. Sensible eating. (The Canada Food Guide, to be exact. It's pretty boring - and it works.) And lots of physical activity. I have stretch marks and extra skin that are, as I like to put it, the price I paid for freedom.

There were numerous times when people I hadn't seen in a long time expressed shock or simply walked past without recognizing me. It felt strange.

I've more or less maintained my weight for a couple of years now. This "new" me is no longer new, but is a person I've grown into. I understand that there are no guarantees that I won't gain all the weight back. I've been big before and I can be big again.

Somewhere in that process I became a runner. I also remember accepting the title with reluctance, telling people "I'm a wanna be runner... not really a runner." Or "I run, but I'm not a runner" or worse "I'm a plodder." At some point I accepted that I am a runner... and I grew into that, too.

Yesterday I was at a retirement party for a lady I used to work with. I left the job several years ago and haven't seen many of the people who were there for a long time. A few of them showered me in the same compliments that were more numerous a few years ago. I still felt uncomfortable with the attention, but have tried to learn to be gracious about it. I say thank you and then turn the conversation back to them, asking how they are or what they've been up to.

Then a puzzling, shocking thing happened. I saw a girl that worked with us, in our little office of four people. We both left the department in the same year. She moved thousands of miles away, back to her home province and we lost touch. She had flown in especially for the retirement party.

She walked by me and I called her name, greeting her with a big smile, saying, "What are you doing here? Great to see you!"

She looked at me in a searching way and finally said, "I know you... I know that I know you, but I'm sorry, I don't really remember..."

I was baffled. We worked together for four years. And there were only four people in our department - one of whom was the person whose retirement we were all there to celebrate! How could she not remember?

I said, "It's Sarah."

She put her hand over her mouth and said, "Oh my God. I didn't recognize you! I can't believe it. I even asked (so-and-so) if you were going to be here. I was looking for you, but I... I'm so sorry. How are you?!" She was visibily embarrassed, stammering and awkward.

We both quickly recouped and had a good visit, eventually exchanging e-mail addresses and promises to stay in touch.

I recounted this story to a friend who's known me for a decade now. I was a bit dumbfounded that someone I'd worked with in such a small setting for so long wouldn't recognize me. Not even by voice!

My friend said she understood how it could happen. "You've changed so much," she said. "You forget. Those of us who see you all the time, we all forget, too. But, I can see how that could happen."

Hhhmmm... It got me thinking about identity... who we are.... how we see ourselves. When we change, are we still the same?

I have a couple of friends who have become born-again Christians. In one case, the girl was a total party animal in university. The change was drastic and seemed sudden to many of us, though she says it was a long time in the making. I remember her being so stinking drunk at parties she couldn't stand up. Now she doesn't touch a drop of liquor. She married within her faith and has two great kids who are being raised by very strict moral rules. She is very, very adament about her new way of life... And seems sincerely happy with it, too. Which is the "real" her? The party animal or the convert? I still have a hard time reconciling the two. Essentially, she has always been a good person, so I try to just accept her and not judge what I don't understand.

This post is a little disjointed, but I guess the main question I wanted to throw out there is in addition to labels, what does identity mean to you? If you look back in time, is the person you are today the one you expected yourself to be?

"It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are."- e.e. cummings


Downhillnut said...

I love the blogosphere when discussions evolve like this!

When you set out to change your life 3 years ago, did you want to change how you looked at yourself? or was it that you already knew and liked the core of who you were, and decided to focus more on quality over quantity in your life?

In the case of the born again Christian, that person might not see their change as dramatically as you do, because she might still have the same passion as she had before, except now it's channeled in a different direction. Same drive, different channel.

I am not the person I expected to be 20, 15, or even 10 years ago, yet much of my core attitudes about life remain strong. I still struggle with decisions about whom I should become, and I hope I always will.

Backofpack said...

I am not who I thought I'd be, yet in some ways I am. I am much stronger than I thought, I never thought I'd be a runner, much less a marathoner. I never thought I'd teach a class like Pilates, or for that matter, parenting classes. I didn't imagine a career of Parent Education, working at a community college. I did expect to be a wife, and since I met Eric so early in my life, I can even say I expected to be Eric's wife. I expected to be a mother too, but had no idea just how much capacity for love I had. I hoped to move through my life with grace and kindness and to have a strong moral center - expectations of myself that guide me every day. I also hoped for fun and goofiness, and I have that too. All adding up to me, and to me being happy with me. I work at all aspects all the time, and I expect that the future holds more for me than I can imagine...

Sarah said...

As usual, you bring up an interesting question to ponder. : )

When I set out to become a runner for the second time 7 yrs ago (the first was in HS), my only goal was to get into shape. I had no idea my whole identity would become so wrapped up in that label. Definitely in most aspects my life is not what I imagined it to be. But I kind of like it that way so far. I tend to keep my expectations low and limiting. I'm learning to let go of my expectations because the possibilities usually end up to be so much more.

robtherunner said...

Hmmm...I think that who I am today is the same person I was 20 years ago. Hopefully a little bit wiser, but still immature and ignorant in many ways. My addictions are channeled differently and my reflections are perhaps more fruitful. I still make stupid mistakes and I still act before thinking on more than a random basis. I think people make choices that lead to a realized self that has many possible paths. Ultimately, I believe we are who we are whether as a child, or as we near death.

Anonymous said...

I still don't know who I am or who I will become. I sort of feel like that innocent sperm whale from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. So much to find out about, so much to look forward to - I am quite dizzy with anticipation. I think my core attitudes have always been the same, I have just not used them to the best of my ability but that evolves over time.

The one thing I was always obsessed about and deliberately cultivated literally since the day I became self-aware was to become and remain adaptable. The willingness and ability and flexibilty to change. This, like all things, has advantages and disadvantages which I can't go into here. One example of each is ... Advantage: You can cope with change and learn stuff. Disadvantage: Instability and stress.

On another note, I just wrote Karen and Dawn and Lisa that I am bummed that I just found out Blog Friends (the Facebook plugin) has just been shut what, I was just beginning to realize how useful it was to see everyone's blog posts on one page!

ipm said...

great post!

no, who I am today is not at all what I expected, but if I have learned anything in life it's that usually what I expect is wrong... :))

however, for me, it's all been very good... and for that I am extremely grateful.

as for your co-worker, some people live very within themselves. and never really SEE what is around them, or who. shallow? maybe. or just cut off perhaps. either way, everyone is on a path, and some of those paths take some pretty severe turns.

yours is one of those....

wthenrest said...

labels ... I know them well.The problem is like a label on a can,we are made up of a multitude of things that create the whole.And unless you know what you are looking for or shall we say pay attention to,it goes by unnoticed. Until we we seek, find and want to see those parts, they may be simply dormant. Life is a growing changing thing.
Identity is an illusion to continues to shift and change according to surroundings.I don't mean the core person but identity to me is not what is inside a person rather it is what other people want or expect to see. We respond to those images.

Robb said...

Back when I worked in radio I felt as though I was two different people operating in the same body. I had a hard time with it...always managing 'who' I was and 'who' other preceived me to be. It was pretty stressful if you can imagine. (Don't call the little men in white on me now...come on, I'm being honest here)

Many choose not to reveal much of ourselves and it's likely rooted in fear - fear of not measuring up to expectations, etc.

These days I figure I'm too old to worry about it.

I think I am who I thought I would become.

Sarah said...

You've been tagged! See my latest blog post for details. : )