I like definitions. Of words. Of roles. Of boundaries. Definitions lend clarity. Definitions make me feel safe. Definitions give a sense of sure-ness to something; and even if that something is not-so-sure, labeling it as such makes it OK.
When it comes to people, there are so many things that define us as human beings, so many roles each of us play and so many things each of us do that make up the whole of the person each of us are. So I find it interesting the definitions that we cling to as being “it”; as being our personal definitions. As in: “I am (a) _______________.” Mom, daughter, son, brother, father, sister, artist, CEO, tennis player, dog person, cat person, yogi, lifeguard, coach, teacher, lover, fighter, Irish, Italian, New Yorker, black, white, straight, gay, bi-sexual, asexual, liberal, conservative, scientist, Catholic, Methodist, atheist, ugly, pretty, tall, short, fat, skinny, athletic, writer, reader, painter, introvert, extrovert, Libra, Gemini, old, young, single, spouse, caregiver etc. And following up on that, even more interesting to me is the: “I am a _____________ and therefore it means that I do _____________. And I like ___________. And I dislike _______________.”
I was recently #SouloAdventuring and was wandering through a part of town I rarely visit. After two hours of walking around and passing a particularly inviting tavern several times and feeling a pull to enter each time, I went in. There were only 2 seats at the back of the bar and I was surprised to find a high school buddy who I hadn’t seen in 11 years sitting there. We didn’t get to chatting much because he was there on business, but in my head, I was thinking of how much I’ve personally changed and grown since high school and how much he probably has, too.
In school years, I defined myself by numerous external factors that are probably not representative of who I am now. You can track certain things I do – like theatre – back as far as pre-school, sure. And I am who I am in part because of lessons and compounding experiences over years of my life – very much including school. But who I am at my essence has nothing to do with being in student government or in different clubs or homecoming queen or not making the basketball or field hockey teams or getting solid Cs (almost sometimes Ds) in math. However, at the time, I found those failures and achievements and roles to be absolutely defining.
In that same tavern, I ended up sitting between two older men – both who had lived in town for stretches of time a while back and both were feeling particularly chatty so we became pals for the night. One was in his 60’s the other probably in his 70’s.
The 70’s something man told me about studying for the bar exam at this tavern and how he eventually owned a Porsche and would zip around in that car – according to him there is a stop sign on Rock Creek Parkway dedicated to his recklessness and police chases he zoomed out of. He talked about money and success and DC-back-in-the-day and living in Georgetown. These were the things he wanted me to know about him. He took out his phone later in our time together and the background had a dog on it. So – of course – I asked about the dog. Then he started telling me about all the different dogs he has owned; this one is a service animal and he takes it into the retirement homes to spend time with elderly people. His girlfriend is jealous of the attention he gives the dog because he loves it so much. A completely different side; a completely different definition than the Porsche-zooming, money-focused, power-man he presented earlier.
The 60 year old is from Colorado and has a young son who volunteers at the local animal shelter. He was glad to be in DC and comes back often on business. He said he enjoys this time of year – tourist season – because you get to see all the kids in DC on school trips; his son’s trip is coming up. He is a father. He asked me a bunch of questions about myself and when I told him I do theatre he said: “Believe it or not, I like theatre.” “Can I ask you something?” I said “Why did you say ‘believe it or not’? I’m just curious what made you think I may not believe that you like theatre?” And he went on to say how he has always been a jock and that people don’t think that jocks like theatre. He said that back when he was in high school he was on the football team, but he still went to see the shows that his high school put on and that people were always surprised by that. I asked him what his favorite show was and he listed off a ton of musicals that he’s seen on Broadway or in London or in Colorado. He even told me about one time when he and his friend were on a ski trip but the lifts shut down because it was too windy; they found out that a local high school had a show going on, and because they couldn’t ski, they popped in on a whim to check it out and it ended up being a good show. Clearly this man truly enjoys theatre but because he played football in high school, he still – at 60 – finds it weird to tell people “I like theatre.” Even someone in a bar who has no awareness of his history.
Definitions are powerful. How we define ourselves matters because it does dig into our person and affects the way we handle ourselves in the world and even how we handle ourselves in private. And – in life – of course there are events that change our lives forever; then there comes the question of whether or not we define ourselves by specific events or our actions in trying times.
I don’t really know how I am defining myself these days…I feel like it’s been changing so much lately. Sometimes I am a theatre artist. Sometimes I am a communications employee. Sometimes I am a *good* friend. Sometimes I am a *bad* friend. Sometimes I am a productive member of society. Sometimes I am an extreme procrastinator. Sometimes I am lost … and sometimes I am just searching. Always I am a lover and a fighter and a believer and a journeyer and very, very human.
Or maybe the lesson here is that people really aren’t able to be defined. Maybe the definition of a person is just “I am a person and therefore it means that I do things that my soul/personhood calls me to do. And I like the things I like. And I dislike the things I dislike.” Maybe it’s just that broad.