“You’re not yourself tonight,” my friend said, interrupting his gleeful tale of tribulation and setting down his pint. We were ensconced firmly in our corner of the pub, a regular Friday meeting place where we could solve the problems of the world, and wonder to the heavens if we would want to be in charge of the whole mess.
In fact, he was correct and I was quite distracted, a larger corner of my mind brooding more heavily than normal. If brooding were an Olympic sport, I would be a heavyweight contender. I’m not sure whether it is from nurture or nature, but I have the unnecessary need to analyze the meaning of absolutely everything in my life. I have brought servers to tears by still not having had enough time with the breakfast menu to thoroughly contemplate the existential meaning of my decision to have the ham rather than the sausage with the farmer’s platter… and don’t ask how I would like my eggs.
Within his comment seemed the core of the problem. If I am not myself, than who am I?
My friend and I have known each other for a little over twenty years, and outside of family, is one of five people I still have some contact with over two distinct periods of my life (the three main stages are broken into living on the farm; university; and moving to Toronto.) We have been in and out of each other’s life from very different perspective – ‘frenemies’, acquaintances, friends, BFFs, and a five-day stint as lovers, which periodically we still crack up laughing about. Suffice to say, this is someone who should know quite a bit about me.
So I asked the question out loud: who am I? His mouth opened and shut, as he tried to come up with the answer.
Defining the ‘who’ always seems the easy bit: son, brother, cousin; stranger/acquaintance; friend/enemy; angel/pariah. The ‘who’ of me as an individual depends on the ‘who’ of you.
There are some absolutes, some inarguable and/or inescapable fact that will instantly play certain factors in the relationship between myself and any stranger I meet that will be recognizable within a few moments: I’m white; male; gay; remarkably average in looks and possibly intelligence. These instantly impact on interactions. These basic facts will be extrapolated within moments in an infinite number of ways, whether people are cognizant of their own social experience or not.
Nothing is ever as simple as we would want it to be, no matter how hard we try; what we do; what we say: if we could change someone else’s mind about who we are that easily, we wouldn’t have issues of racism, or homophobia. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to try and strive towards a better ideal, and set examples for the next generation.
No, even at a narrower viewpoint, you can have competing interpretations of individual actions: one supervisor can grade someone’s work as hard working and diligent, and the next supervisor can view the person as a suck-up and a threat to his/her own position. Bitter exes can have such vastly different interpretations of he said/she said, that divorce is a profitable area of law to practice in. Neighbours might move away or forbid their children to play with each other for reasons that at the heart of it would seem down right silly once unraveled.
But who am I?
Most days I try to be nice, though some days I fail spectacularly. Then there are those awestruck/awful days when for better or worse it all comes out: a tsunami of stupid/stupendous proportions, again, the interpretation depending on the who of you.
Within the course of any given day I am the set of opposable thumbs that opens the bag of kibble; the neighbour that held the elevator door for you; the jerk on the subway, who made you move your knapsack off the seat, so he could sit down; the chauvinist pig, who dared to hold the door for you; the anonymous voice on the phone, who genuinely appreciates your frustration, but cannot help you as it is not his department; the asshole, coughing all over your food in the grocery store; the friend, who listens empathically to your break-up story; the regular, who orders the number 6 combo for pick-up; the jovial barfly, who tips really well; the honest guy, who yells and picks up your wallet that you just dropped; angry account number 123 ABC, calling about the double-bill on his bank statement. In short, I’m a human. Imperfectly struggling along with everyone else to find my niche in the world.
Who am I depends on who you are.
My friend picked up his glass and saluted me. “You’re my friend, and I love you. And right now, nothing else matters.”
The question answered, we resumed with the rest of the world’s problems.