Perhaps one of the most prevalent misconceptions of identity in our society is that who I am is equivalent to what I do. It’s part of our national persona – we’ve built this country, its industry, its infrastructure, its institutions, from the ground up with our own hands. It’s ingrained into our individual thinking from childhood: you can be anything you want to be if you plan smart, work hard, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work harder. And we play as hard as we work – our leisure time is filled with yet more activities, more ‘enriching’ experiences. We equate idleness with sloth.
I’ve certainly fallen into this mistake more than once. I’ve felt small and lazy and guilty when I’ve answered the inevitable question ‘What do you do?’ with the confession that I haven’t worked outside the home, for pay, since my now-grown children were born. I’ve pushed myself to keep vacuuming the carpet or weeding the flowerbeds when my body was crying for rest. I’ve foregone sitting on the deck watching the sunrise in order to get the dishwasher unloaded so the never-ending cycle of filling it again can continue without delay.
Madeleine L’Engle (whose list of accomplishments is, incidentally, simply staggering) has taught me much about separating my image of myself from the laundry list of what I have done. In A Circle of Quiet, the first of her Crosswicks Journals, she begins to ruminate on ‘ontology: the word about the essence of things; the word about being.’