What We See in the Mirror – Thoughts on Identity

Make_yourselfI’ve been reading Madeline L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet. For those of you who are readers out there, you might know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time. A Circle of Quiet is not like her youth fiction, it’s her reflections on writing and life. I’m enjoying it immensely. In fact, it is the first book in a long time that has made me stop, get out a pencil and some sticky notes, and start underlining and marking passages.

One of the things she talks about is our mirrors. She points out that when it comes to our homes, we are careful about the mirrors we choose to do our hair or brush our teeth in front of. We don’t choose darkened mirrors or funhouse mirrors, we choose true clear mirrors that let us see our image. She says that people are also our mirrors – the mirrors of our soul. She says she takes care who she uses as her mirrors – her husband, her children and her close friends. When she uses other people as mirrors, she stops being true to herself.

I know what she is talking about. Let’s call it the What Will The Neighbors Think syndrome (WWTNT?). It doesn’t have to be neighbors, of course, it could be coworkers, family members, whoever – it’s when you let other people’s opinions dictate your choices, instead of your own. The thing is, it isn’t even always What the Neighbors Actually Think – it is more frequently what we think the neighbors think. Reality might be that the neighbors are too dang busy with their own lives to have an opinion on yours, but we think that they do.

For some of us, WWTNT? can drive a lot of our choices – what house to buy, what career to go into, what to wear, where to shop and so on. It seems a little silly, but really, it is a very powerful force. And there is some validity in it. After all, social structures exist for a reason. Simply following the social conventions can make life easier, (why recreate the wheel?) and create more social bonding, (people that look alike and do the same things tend to group together.) However, it can also cause inner conflict. For L’Engle, she talks about her struggles with being a writer first and a mother and housekeeper second. How terribly guilty she would feel because she didn’t feel like she was keeping up with her neighbor’s standards of what a housewife should be. I would guess that a lot of us have gone through something similar – a internal struggle when we realized our passions and dreams differed from what other people thought we should do.

As I have mentioned, I‘ve been thinking about identity a lot lately. My identity has changed a lot in the past couple of years. Many of the words I would have used to describe myself a couple of years ago, aren’t true anymore. And, many of the words I would use now to describe myself, would have been unimaginable then. I’m not done, either. I am just getting to know this new woman who I have become. When I look in the mirror now, (both the actual physical mirror and the reflections of those closest to me,) I see someone completely different. Someone who I am just getting to know. I find myself saying, “When did I become this woman?” a lot. I usually mean it as a joke, when I am getting up at 4:50AM to go to a morning Boxing class, when I’m choosing nonfiction over a novel, when I’m tying on my running shoes… things I wouldn’t have ever thought of doing not that long ago.

I’m also saying “no” to things I would have never turned down. I’ve been active in our community theatre organizations in various ways since 1989. It’s been my lifeblood. All of my friends I met through theatre. But, for now, it doesn’t interest me. I still love my friends, I just don’t have any interest in being at the theatre. It could be just a pendulum, I was very, very busy with theatre the past four years or so, and maybe I am just burned out. In time the pendulum will swing back again. Or maybe not – I honestly don’t know. That’s what I mean – I’m still getting know this “new” me.

Without a doubt I have let other people’s opinions of me effect my choices. I can’t honestly complain, either. I’ve had a good life. I might have had a very different one if I had just listened to my own heart, but the one I have is good. However, I feel like I have the opportunity right now to examine it. I also have the wisdom and experience to start cutting out the parts that don’t work for me, and start adding more that does.