I have a friend who’s really good at something.
Actually, I have lots of friends who are freakishly talented at one thing or another. David and I float in a variety of accomplished crowds. We know alotof big-dreamers, sky-reachers, place-goers, and world-changers.
We – not so secretly – love living vicariously through them.
But to us, they’re just them.
We recently attended a party for one of these place-goers. Everyone who spoke about her mentioned her incredible talent.
I wasn’t surprised to hear how gifted she was. But the more I heard people refer to that thing, the more I thought, yeah, she’s really great at that, but…
…But to me, she’s just her.
I don’t mean to downgrade any of her accomplishments. I couldn’t be more proud of her. Just like I couldn’t be more proud of any of our Ivy-league buddies.
But while the rest of the world might look at these people and say, oh (s)he’s that (girl)guy who does that thing… we look at them and think: they’re the people I watch hockey games with, or the people I shop with, laugh with, dissect movies with, or the ones I know I can call for a spontaneous, last-minute, Friday night dinner.
While the things they do might be insanely interesting to hear about,we love them just because they’re them.
I did well in school. My teachers wanted me skipped. My parents never agreed. Mom and Dad thought it more important that I learn to succeed in life than to excel at a thing.
Mom, Dad… thank you. I’m so glad you didn’t let me be that girl.
I won’t lie to you: it felt really good to be that good at something. I think all of us need something we’re really good at. We all need something that’s ours – something we can hang on to and claim. We need something we can go back to when we find out there’s a whole lot of other things that really aren’t ours.
But there’s also something very dangerous about talent. If we aren’t careful, we can let ourselves be defined by it.
After years of sailing through tests, books, and projects, I got to high school and thought I could do anything school-related. At least, I should be able to do anything school-related, right? Because, well, wasn’t that who I was?
Every time I got another A, my classmates would brush it off and say, well, that’s just Lana. Every time I did well on a test, my friends’ parents would say, you must be so proud.
I smiled and nodded. But I didn’t feel proud. I felt scared.
Once we set the bar high, we have to constantly hit it. When we don’t, everyone around us makes a big deal of it. If we’re not careful, we start to think things like:
What if I don’t do well next time?
What am I, then?
I didn’t get the university scholarship I wanted – on a technicality. My first day at TWU, I met the people who did get that scholarship, and I scoured them for clues: who are you exactly and how on earth did you beat me at this?
I started to realize thatthere were lots of ‘me’s’ out there.Valedictorians, Salutatorians, Student Body Presidents, Heads of Grad Committees… these people had done it all, and more.
Suddenly, I wasn’t that girl with that thing anymore. I was just… me.
That year, I met a thousand other people who’d done far more incredible things than I. I became friends with people who knew how to write better, score higher, and have more fun than I did.
And to them, I was just me.
I should have been frightened. Instead, I felt free.
It wasn’t the last time I cycled through this role-filling-identity-clashing circle. I’d adopt a new role, I’d let that role define me, and a disaster would follow. After the inevitable emotional fallout, I’d push back. If I’m not ‘that’ girl, then maybe I can be ‘this’ girl, I’d think. It would start all over again.
And then, of course, I got cancer.
Cancer was my ultimate identity disaster. It turned my entire world upside down. It made all of these things I was trying to do look insignificant – even trivial – in comparison.
But it also taught me – hopefully irrevocably – to separate what I do from who I am.
We writers hear a lot about the importance of platform. Define yourselves, potential agents and editors say. Narrow your niche. Be that guy who’s really good at such-and-such. Be that girl that knows everything on this-and-that. Be the go-to person for … whatever topic you can write on – well – forever.
I find the platform concept difficult, because if cancer has taught me anything, its that who I am is not a collection of the things I do.
I might be a wife, mother, daughter, sister, teacher, friend, nurse, writer, musician, cook, decorator, taxi-driver, house-cleaner, toy-organizer, and… possible homeschooling mom.
But that’s not me.
Take ‘homeschooling mom’, for example. The more I head down this road, the more eyebrows are raised, the more murmurs are made, and the more people tell me, I gotta say, Lana, that just doesn’t seem like you.
It’s not, I reply. But I think it’s part of what I’m supposed to do.
We are eager to put others – especially those we don’t know well – into boxes. People are complex. They constantly surprise us. Surprises can be good, or … exhausting. And when we’re not sure who we can trust, who is like us, or who would drive us nuts, we like to fit those around us into comfortable little labels. To calm ourselves down from the endless possibilities of relational disaster, to help ourselves cope with people who are very, very different from us, and to ultimately answer the big question – should I really spend more time with this person – we make lists of the facts. We define people by what they do.
Soon, we think, oh, that’s so-and-so, and they do such-and-such…and we imply, even if only to ourselves, that that’s who they are.
And if we’re not careful, we start to accept the restrictions of these societal boxes. We start to think, well, this is what I do, so this is what I have to be. And sometimes we’re not at all like the other people who are also doing this thing in this particular box, and then we think, what on earth is wrong with us?
And what’s wrong, really, is that none of us fits in a box.
It took cancer to show me this, because I was finally forced to adopt a role I didn’t want: cancer-fighter. Deep down, I know the title fits. But in order to function, in order to not be swallowed up by this thing that could very easily claim my physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual life, I have to – at least occasionally – not think I have cancer.
I take my drugs. I do the treatments. I go about my day.
I fight cancer. But I am not a cancer-fighter.
This redefinition has slowly seeped into the rest of my life. I raise kids. But I am not – just – a mother. I am married to a very fun and talented man. But I am not – just – a wife. I help other women become mothers. But I am not – just – a nurse.
I write. But I am not – just – a writer.
I am – me.
And here’s the really great thing: nobody else is.
I’ve finally found the thing I can be best at. No one else will ever top it.
Just like my friend – the one whose party-goers raved about how wonderful she was at this one thing – the thing she’s really, really great at, the one I wanted to talk more about,is being her.
That’s why I love her.
It takes great security to make this leap from I am this thing to this is a thing I do, but I am not defined by it.
But not only do I think you can do it, I really, really want you to.
Because, when we learn to let ourselves be us, and not a collection of activities, we start to let our friends and acquaintances be them, too. And when we do that, our acquaintances start to become friends, and friends start to become adopted family.
It’s scary, overwhelming, and not necessarily intuitive – but also a pretty great way to live.
Cancer has taught me to value relationships more than accomplishments. But it has also freed me to enter in to these relationships better. Three years ago I would have let my friends’ – and my own – external trappings hinder me from truly knowing them, or being known by them.
Now, because I know that I am more than what I do, I get to ‘do life’ with some of the best people I’ve ever met.
James Baldwin wrote: An identity… (is)…arrived at by the way in which a person uses and faces his experience.
We are each made up of a collection of unique experiences. No one else has seen what we’ve seen or done what we’ve done. No one else will respond to those things the way we do.
The question is:what will we do with it?
Better yet: who will we share it with?
No matter how many breakthroughs science makes, no matter how many people pray for me, one day I – like each of us – will pass on. When that day comes, I hope people don’t stand around talking about what I did. Those things are important, yes. But I’d rather they talk about who I was.
I hope I give them enough to talk about.