This is Not Who I Am
Why we need people to remind us of who we are
My first role models were the orphan Anne Shirley, and the second-borns Laura Ingalls and Jo March and Elizabeth Bennet. I felt destined to a lonely life caught between being both number two and the heroine of her own story. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways; most of the things we tell ourselves as children do.
Decades later (as I have learned to settle into who I am and not who I wished I was) I realized being overlooked or unchosen could have its benefits—and not just for its literary merit. I learned to become an observer, to consider instead of act, to hold back instead of move forward, which made me even less like my heroines than I thought. In my twenties, my oldest friend found two illustrations of two girls: one in red, leaning back against a tree with her head dipped low, and the other in blue, on a tree swing swinging high, her hair waving out behind her. My friend framed them and wrote on the one in red, “You,” and the one in blue, “Me.”
Were these the chicken or the egg? Did I live into them or was I already them and just fighting it?
Another friend send me a card a few years ago in which she wrote the words, “You are a true kindred, a Diana Berry of my heart,” and it felt, for maybe the first time, just right. I am not the resilient heroine, the rash writer, or the witty wallflower, but I often see in myself a desire to be so. I see how these girls have been held up as the feminine icons of my Generation Y sisterhood. They were rule breakers in some ways, culture makers. They were not rock stars or feminists, but they told little girls that whatever world they were brought into had margins that could be pushed.
This is not a new story, it’s been told and told again since Eve wanted what she couldn’t have. Every generation has her but the story is always the same: Here are the boundary lines, toe them.
Yesterday I had a conversation with someone I trust to tell me when the boundary lines I have toed have been crossed unhelpfully. He had some challenging words to say and I needed to hear them and wanted to hear them and was waiting to hear them, but didn’t know any of that until I heard him say them. Sometimes we need people in our lives to remind us who we are. Sometimes we forget or we see what fits others well and think adopting it for ourselves must be the way. But it feels, as I said yesterday through a choked up throat, like playing dress-up in clothing too big or too fancy or too bright for me.
I used to feel ashamed of the fact that all my little friends were more like Anne and Laura and Jo and Elizabeth, when I felt like Diana and Mary and Beth and Jane. I felt ashamed that wherever they flounced, they succeeded. Somehow, despite all that was against them as orphans and second-borns, they were still the stars of their stories. I don’t mean this literally, of course, but figuratively. There has always been the gnawing knowledge in me that I was not a leading lady and wanting to be so would only come to nothing. I watched them marry and have children and publish bestsellers and have homes and become like Midas with his golden touch wherever he went. And I burned. I burned with envy. I didn’t become consumed by it but I let it erode me. I’ve let it eat away at me. I’ve let it topple me from who I am and what I do best, to turn me into something else entirely.
This envy made it entirely too difficult to know who I actually was in my core. No, it has made it entirely too difficult to know who I actually am in my core. I found and find myself seeing the merits of every other person and their lives and their arguments and their portion, and find mine lacking every single time. No matter what I choose, I believe I have chosen wrong, I am doing it wrong.
Whenever that gnawing rises up in me these days, I recognize it as a signpost pointing me back to God, and to who he has made me to be. Whenever I ignore it and just go on going on, I find myself sometime down the road twisted into knots and needing words like the words my friend spoke to me yesterday: “This is not who you are,” he said, “It’s hypocrisy to say that and do this.” And he was right.
I need my oldest friend to remind me there’s beauty in the wallflowers, the tree-backers. I need my newer friend to remind me that everyone needs a Diana Berry in their life and I have been hers. And I need my friend from yesterday to turn me right around and make me look honestly at what I am producing and say, “Hey, I think you’ve lost your way a bit, but I’m still on your side, I’m still for you.”
I hope you have heroes in your life, folks you look at and admire. But I hope you know, too, that you’re not them and don’t have to be. When I think about all the people I admire and want to be like, the list is long and lovely. I’ve learned more at their feet than I can even imagine. But if I am trying to be them instead of the me I am, then I have already failed a bit, I’ve turned off the path by one degree, destined now to a different destination.
A few months ago I read1 of a conversation two men had about what it means to flourish and one said to the other, “Flourishing is to be magnificently oneself,”2 and I haven’t stopped thinking of it since.
What does it mean to be magnificently oneself as a Christian, one who is made in God’s image and who endeavors to become like Jesus?
What does it mean to be magnificently oneself as an artist, when what is seen and promoted changes almost too quickly to master?
What does it mean to be magnificently oneself as a human living in a world that has more opinions about what we should all be and do than one person can manage in one lifetime?
What does it mean to be magnificently oneself as me?
Since dear Buechner died recently, I’ve been thinking of one of his most oft quoted lines, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”3 It brings me no gladness to wear too big and too fancy clothes or try to jump over bars not meant for me or fit myself into spaces that don’t welcome me. But it brings me deep gladness to be who God made me to be and do what he has called me to do, even if it isn’t like the icons of my youth.
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Andy Crouch said it, “To flourish is to be magnificently oneself.”