Time: Tuesday morning, December 15th.
Location: Red Wings Shoe Store.
Upon entering the store, the clerk asks the obligatory, “How can I help you?”
Tim: I’m looking for some sturdy work boots.
Clerk: What sort of work do you do?
Tim: (In my head: “I’m a teacher…but wait; I can’t say that anymore…what do I say?”) Aloud: “I’m a handyman and I build custom furniture.”
Wow, did that throw me for a loop! My identity for the past 17 years has been “teacher.” People know what that means, obviously, and most often the response is something like, “Oh cool, what do you teach?” or “Man, I admire you. I couldn’t put up with those kids.” And every once in awhile there’s the condescending comment from an over-educated, I-measure-myself-by-my-income response like this: “Wow, that’s really noble of you.” To which I respond, “Yes, yes it is. I’m a noble person, but don’t worry, I still accept you, non-noble person…sort of. I’ll pray for you, though, for sure.” The key is to out-condescend people; that’s the lesson for this post. Go practice.
So back to the Red Wings store. For the past few months, I’ve been on leave from my teaching job in an effort to manage my depression. The good news: it’s working, and I feel like a much healthier person. I’ve quit hoping for a meteor to fall on me, so that’s nice. The bad news: there’s simply no way I can return to the triggers that exist in my teaching job. I guess it’s sort of like shattering a glass – you can piece it back together, but it can never be un-broken again. When I left my job in September, something broke, or was already broken, and as I’ve thought about returning to finish out the year, I felt certain that I would end up back where I started. So to make a long and extremely tumultuous story short, I discussed my thinking with the school, and being the type-A place that it is, they had filled my job 8 and 1/2 seconds after I told them I wouldn’t be ready to return in January, and maybe not at all. Then I was asked to keep the news quiet until everyone is out on winter break and therefore not paying too much attention. Ouch. But at least that helped me see how tenuous my teacher identity had been.
All that is to say, whether I like it or not, I am officially no longer employed as a teacher, and that feels about as bizarre as if I grew a 4th arm. (If you’re skimming, you should read more carefully, because I just implied that I already have 3 arms, and that’s funny. Seriously, laugh.) But for real, I can’t even explain how Twilight-Zone it feels to drive on campus and to realize that I am no longer “part of the team.” I no longer have an identity that ties me to a job and a place that gains me instant credibility with people.
I wish I could say that, when I answered the shoe store clerk’s “what do you do” question, it was with pride, but I’m disappointed to report that I felt a sense of shame. I certainly don’t believe there’s anything inherently shameful in what I plan to do with my life now, but somewhere deep inside, deeper than where my active beliefs live, I suppose I’ve been indoctrinated by a lifetime surrounded by people who measure people’s worth by their schools, degrees, and career choices. I don’t have a lot of friends who are bartenders, circus clowns, or handymen.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking for pity or for anyone to affirm that I’m still their friend. I’m just pondering the radical change of identity I’m undergoing as we speak. And when I stop to think about it, I’m glad to have the opportunity to reshape my identity because so much of my life to this point has felt more like a performance than an authentic existence. In Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, there’s a line that gets at the heart of each person’s true identity: “I exist as I am; that is enough.” He goes on to say that he is content if everyone pays attention or if no one pays attention. To me that seems like a truly meaningful existence – one that is unencumbered by others’ expectations or biases about what makes a person useful and meaningful.
So who am I? A teacher? Not anymore. A handyman? Not quite yet. A builder of wood furniture? I’d like to be, but we’ll see. Or just a human being who is trying to live in the midst of the inherent confusion of this life without incessantly striving for something more or different or better. Can I say, “I exist as I am; that is enough” and let that be my identity? I hope so, but it will take some time.
PS. As usual, I’d like to encourage you to share this with someone who might need to read it…or to just reach out to someone to let them know they are not alone. One of the things that this time has taught me is that the majority of people tend to steer clear of those who are sick. I suspect it’s the whole “I don’t know what to say” thing. Well, let me tell you, saying the wrong thing is far better than saying nothing. So please, encourage someone that they are not alone – that’s my main hope for this blog.
PPPS. I’ve added a number of mindfulness meditations to the Mindfulness section…check them out!
PPPPS. Are you annoyed by these PS’s yet? I’m writing like a 5th grade girl to her secret crush. Sheesh, Tim, stop!