Thursday, October 9, 2008

Who are you?

I know I said that this next blog post would be about my trip into the desert, but am going to hold that story for a bit and reflect instead on a something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Though this issue has been on my mind for a while, an incident the other day ripped open a curtain on a window which allowed me to see landscapes I was not aware existed. As I cannot tell you exactly what happened for reasons which will become obvious, I will relate instead the parameters of the situation in as specifically non-specific a manner possible.

I want to talk about identity.

You are plunged alone into the middle of a new culture, country and environment. You don’t know anyone and they don’t know you. No one is able to speak to your strengths or view your weaknesses with endearment (because I know you all find my over-analytical views endearing…right?). No one knows what you’ve done, or what you stand for. All you are is a physical body with a name who is supposed to be competent to carry out a job. How do you create an impression? What will that impression be, and is it consistent with who you see yourself to be? Bear in mind that the challenge of creating a good first impression is compounded by the judgment of your actions from many different cultural frames of reference, none of which you are too familiar with. How will your identity change in this situation, or will it? You no longer have your past experiences to hide behind. No one from the Philipines cares you were a sponsored elite cyclist back home. No one from the general Saudi population accedes work done with IV drug users, especially in a harm reduction capacity (“haram kateer” – highly forbidden!). All you have from these past experiences are the core lessons you learned, and the values which were created or modified in the process.

We too often define ourselves by what we have done, and forget, or worse, fail to discover who we ARE. Too much, we emphasize “accomplishment” itself as a single event, an endpoint, and forget to reflect on WHY we did it, what we learned from it, and how we can apply this information in different capacities to future situations. Failure to achieve a set goal is seen as a negative, because we cannot “add the attained goal to our list” and are thus left to make empty excuses to ourselves and others as to why we can’t say “I did that”…yet what we have really failed at it to see the process as an extremely rich resource in experience gained. It is what we choose to take from these situations, despite our disappointment that makes us who we are.

What do you say when someone asks you who you are? Do you tend to urgently list off a list of your personal and career accomplishments early on in a “getting to know you” conversation? Do you sit back, listen, process and respond to what the other person has to say, let THEM ask YOU the questions, and let your “true self” come through slowly in your choice of response? Are your “listable” experiences events which occurred as a result of your intrinsic pursuing of what truly interests you and gives you pleasure? Or are they just one more thing to put on your “list” whose length is directly proportional to the recognition you believe you are owed from those with whom you share that list?

Do you care more about being able to say you did it, or can you see the importance in talking about what you learned from it either directly or indirectly, even if the actual event is not mentioned?

I want to make perfectly clear that I am just as guilty of many of the abovementioned behaviours as the next person, but it is something that I am aware of and working on every day.

Now picture yourself in a situation where you are working hard to establish a good, carefully calculated first impression on your new community. You know you have been doing well so far, but you have also seen how quickly an impression can turn, and are doing your best to merge at a matching speed, with plenty of shoulder checking. You have learned how to roll with and absorb the many small challenges you face while trying to assimilate into your new environment, and though you have had to bite your tongue a few times, you know that ultimately, it is only your own loss of control which has been compromised in most situations (ie, “their” way is not better or worse…just “different”).

Then, suddenly, someone is asking you to do something that is so completely against everything you believe in, and that you believe you stand for, it becomes “un-absorbable”. You refuse outright (with what you think is a very strong, valid argument). You are asked to comply several more times. You stand your ground. You can literally see the otherwise demure, unassuming impression you have worked so hard to build, evaporating in the rising heat. You can also see that the challengers know you are right despite them pushing you the other way – the “easier” way (a fact which, unfortunately, does not actually make your immediate situation any better).

Ok, let’s talk about me. In the end (as I am sure you figured out that this hypothetical non-specific situation pertains directly to yours truly), I am very very happy to say that I stood my ground, advocacy muscles rippling, and truly stood up for what I believed in. Most importantly, given the chance to go back and make that decision again, I would not have changed a thing.

Lesson learned:
Part of self discovery, getting to know your TRUE self, is being placed in a situation where all EXTRINSIC frames of reference defining “you” as YOU are absent, and subsequently making a decision opposing ALL external pressures, based only on the strength of your own moral intrinsic belief that you are RIGHT.

I will end with an analogy because you all know how much I LOVE analogies…

Some areas of personal boundaries are like lycra – Easily supports large changes in conformity, but still keeps things within the same general shape

Other areas of personal boundaries are like jeans - Stiff at first, but after being worn a few times, they stretch out comfortably, and you pretty much forget how stiff and hard to get into they were when you first got them.

Still other areas are like a suit of armour – No stretch or give. Instead, rigid and indestructible, custom made to fit you exactly because you know the dimensions will never change. You also know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it will protect what is inside of it against any attempted extrinsic insult, be it physical, psychological, or moral.

Thanks for listening
Love to all (and congratulations if you actually made it this far in the post!)


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