About a year ago, my boyfriend of the time hired me on to do some marketing temp work at a design company he worked for. We’ll call him Boyfriendboss for relative anonymity and story relevance. If it weren’t for the fact that we were fooling around in the back room on my lunch break, or really anytime I decided I had “made a mistake and needed to be disciplined,” — I might have jumped out of the 4th floor window out of desperation to escape the boredom. No computer, no phone, only occasional music, isolation from the rest of the employees, just gluing 1 inch tiles to cardboard folders for 8 hours a day, I turned my inner focus to philosophy. I contemplated various unsolved questions about religion, art, the universe, the meaning of life, etc. Y’know, stuff you do when you turn 21 and know everything, buy a knitted hoodie and jump in a van with your friends to mexico, giving out shitty tarot readings for cigarette money. Only I was 26 and still cocky, marching into Boyfriendboss’s office to inform him about the way things are, only to have him toss another question that would completely derail my sophomoric theory, and send me on my way to start over. This was all fun and games, until one day during a fight when he threw a whammy of a question at me:
That was one of the last times I played philosophy with Boyfriendboss. Somehow contemplating the greatest secrets of the universe was a trivial pastime, but when asked to uncover the truth about myself, the one cluster of static molecules in the entire universe I am supposed to be the most intimately knowledgeable of, I froze. A series of questions rapid-fired through my head: “Who am I to whom? To me? To you? What do you want me to say? What do I want me to say? Am I a collection of my experiences or perceptions? Whose perceptions? Who I was, am, or where I’m going? I HAVE A MILLION ANSWERS TO THIS QUESTION AND THEY ALL CONTRADICT EACH OTHER AND DO YOU HAVE 6 HOURS OR YEARS IN YOUR SCHEDULE TO SORT IT ALL OUT WITH ME AND THEN GIVE UP BECAUSE THAT WILL ALL CONTINUE TO EVOLVE AS I LIVE MY LIFE AND GROW AS A HUMAN???” But all that actually came out of my mouth was, “*sob* I don’t know.” So the perceived answer to that question just ended up being “idiot child.”
It probably goes without saying, but I hate this question.
Well, I guess if you were Master of the Universe you wouldn’t care, because enlightenment and junk. Perhaps I took this question out of the intended context at the time, but nonetheless I am grateful for the lesson, because it brought a lot of other muck to the surface. It reminded me of an assignment entitled “I am” that I received during a current events course in my freshman year of college. The professor wanted to get to know his students, so he asked us to write about who we were, yet without labels. We could not indicate our genders, family roles, occupation, majors, sexual orientation, etcetera. The idea was to view ourselves as a culmination of our passions and experiences, rather than rely on surface perceptions that overpower our lives. But in doing this activity, I still realized that many of my experiences throughout life were based upon said imposed perceptions.
We tend to live our lives as self-scripted epic sagas, whether we want to admit agency or not. The self is naturally the protagonist, and we place everyone we encounter into either a supporting or antagonist role. On some primal level, assigning roles to ourselves and others is a way of making sense of the world; it organizes, simplifies, and determines safety and security. We spend our first formative years asking “who/what are you?” From there we eventually learn our assigned names and begin our never-ending journey of finding our places in society. Through our experiences and influence of our peers we begin to formulate ever-shifting perceptions of “I am”. Yet somehow, despite this all being an innate survival mechanism, it is still the number one killer of genuine, respectful, unconditionally loving human relation. Enlightened teachings on the subject seem to contradict one another, at least on the surface. On one hand we are supposed to move past labels, roles, and general concepts of the ego. Yet on the other, we’re told “know thyself”. We’re told we can’t love anyone else until we love ourselves, but in learning to love ourselves we naturally stumble through various life/death/life cycles, checking in to ask who we are now in order to reestablish any ounce of sanity and order.
Sometimes the inner work gets too hard and too scary, so we look outward for relief. Boyfriendboss and I had to walk away from our relationship for that exact reason. We were so wrapped up in the idea of completing one another that when one fell out of line, the other’s sense of identity would quake and crumble. Perhaps he would say differently, so I suppose I will just speak for my own lived experience. Anytime one tried to predict the action or response of the other, he or she would inevitably and unconsciously do the opposite. Eventually all of the assumptions and pressure from the positive and negative roles we assigned each other broke us. In retrospect, trying to clearly define either of us was about as useful as pouring hot acid into a plastic grocery bag to be contained. These nasty habits made our relationship incredibly volatile. I hated him for telling me who I was in fits of anger or who he anticipated I’d be, and not allowing me to show love or even see my efforts, because after enough truly ignorant mistakes he rewrote my character from queen goddess to malicious and crazy. I would be condemned for things I hadn’t even done but had triggered memories of injustices past. Admittedly, I ended up doing the same thing to him, as well. In the end, if you don’t allow a person to just be who they are in their infinite manifestations, you lose anyway. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it sucks. Then again, if that is the case, then you never actually had them in the first place, only a material face on your imagination.
The heartbreak from that loss caused me to really reflect on how often I build people up in my mind, create imaginary rules and parameters for them, and then live my life in constant angst and disappointment from the let down. Conversely, it has also caused me to reflect on people who I have perceived as undesirable in some fashion, willfully blind to their beauty, vulnerability and gifts because that would crack the easy, manageable role I had assigned to them. Allowing everyone the purity of their intentions, mistakes and love requires work for most of us. It requires peace within the self, not having a need to define yourself by others’ influences and presence. It requires digging deep and tapping into compassion. It requires critical thought, the ability to move past history, learn lessons, see things in new lights and colors, and write fresh narratives as you go along. People expand and shift just as nature does. The earth doesn’t just erase the changes, like a forest after a wildfire, or every majestic canyon that used to be at the bottom of the ocean; she just let them settle into their new form and be.
Disappointment is only possible if there is expectation. In this context, “disappointment” is being used as a separate concept from general upset and anger. Sure, it’s important to assert healthy boundaries, and it is justifiably disappointing when parties go against agreed upon rules and understandings. But an interesting thing happens when people disappoint us based on non-consensual arrangements. Almost uncontrollably, the apple of our eye suddenly becomes infested with maggots. When an actor continues to go off-script, the director will get upset and potentially terminate him from the show. In the performance of our lives, where we are the directors, we become confused and develop various negative emotions when our players fall out of the characters we assigned to them in our minds. They’re no longer fulfilling a need we haven’t even articulated. Maybe we can’t put a finger on what that need even is, or maybe we know deep down that it isn’t the other person’s responsibility to do our own work to fill those personal voids, so we say nothing out of fear of shame. Think about all of the conflict and earth-shattering experiences you have had throughout your life due to others stepping outside of the box of what you perceive as their norm. Doubtless, there are countless memories of family, lovers, friends, leaders and idols who, at one point or another, made you question everything about them and your dedication to that relationship. Remember all the times, in turn, when others have assumed motives you didn’t possess, or anticipated behavior you never carried out.
Naturally, one of the most exciting parts of any relationship, particularly romantic ones, is usually the getting-to-know-you phase. It’s an adventure full of freshness and surprise. We go with the flow, rejoicing in the positive and saying “hmm, that’s a thing, noted” to the negative. We have no design, as the story is just unfolding as we go. I’m curious if, as individuals, we are constantly learning and expanding, how presumptuous is it for us to assume linear, consistent nature for another? If only we could all be more conscious to live in the mindset of a child, student, or honeymooner, yet retain our wisdom and intuition to know when to keep boundaries to protect ourselves. Then again, this would probably require some sort of DNA overhaul and a really solid system for personal responsibility that I don’t even think exists right now on this planet. Dear Santa, I would like that this year. Kthx. Love, me.
The other night a dear friend of mine told me about mysterious poem called “Thunder Perfect Mind”. I strongly encourage you to look it up. It is an old and intense piece about the goddess being everything, to the point of brain-cracking contradiction. In acknowledgment that we are all little droplets of the divine, we too remember that all we are and aren’t is true and perfect, and that we evolve at the exact rate we’re supposed to, whether it’s pleasurable timing for everyone or not. So don’t worry so much about the illusion of labels.
No matter what — be love (even if it’s tough), honor your deepest intuition, and make sure you keep ’em on their toes. Somewhere in between all that, when you’re not even looking, you’ll catch a flash of your true self smiling back at you. Don’t lose the magic by trying to make too much sense of it.