(Originally posted mid 2016)
My life has changed a lot recently. Over a series of little moments & then a few big, bold steps, I feel like in many ways I'm beginning my life over. Which is scary. But also an undeniably amazing opportunity.
An opportunity to rethink what defines me. How do I break out of the mould I'd put myself in? And through the end of a marriage and a changing relationship with motherhood, what it means to be a woman has come to the forefront.
I have a funny relationship with womanhood -- one of the broadest categories that supposedly defines me, and yet one that has often been most narrow and restrictive. Even ill-fitting.
I am a woman, and I've never doubted that - but at the same time it's also seemed an inadequate label. How is that one word meant to sum up half of the people on the planet in one group?
And yet... I do feel something powerful about being a woman. Something we have perhaps lost touch with, that remains unrealised - but is certainly stirring. I do feel connection with that. (And it is this I hope and pray for the return of, to replace the labels and narrow gender roles that have tried so miserably to fill the gap.)
And yet again... most of what I actually think about myself is just traits of being a person. Introversion, independence, creativity, a love of words and stories, deep thoughts, silly jokes.
Of course my biology and physiology undoubtedly plays a role in how my 'personhood' expresses. From my hormones, to my body fat percentage, to the way my brain is wired. I don't believe any of those things are incidental or inconsequential.
Neither is the culture I grew up in and its beliefs and attitudes about women, the societal expectations and norms, and my own family's permutations of that. And even the legacy and history of women the world over that has shaped our current times. This all affects me in ways I haven't yet fully grasped, and may never.
And so in all of that, and more that shapes and influences me... who am I?
Am I woman first and me second? My personality expresses my own particular version, but still primarily 'woman'?
That is what society would have me believe I think. That is the hierarchy we love. In nature, we classify everything from the top down.
Role: ex-wife, mother, teacher, writer
and then: Me
There I am (or you are) at the bottom. That is how we might be defined.
And we love our hierarchies. Look around our society at almost any part of it -- governments, schools, workplaces, families. We are all categorised and subcategorised and put in our places.
All something else first, before we are ourselves. And well, sure, we can be whatever expression of ourselves we like... AS LONG AS we stay within the neat, pre-defined boxes.
But what if the neat boxes don't fit us?
What if there is no box on the form that we feel defines us?
It's when we try to break out of these neat boxes -- either by writing in our own tick box, or refusing to use the tick boxes at all -- that people get uncomfortable.
A 1950s housewife who wants to work outside the home? Are you insane? And yet we did it -- and are still pushing against the vestiges of that box.
But we are so quick to create new boxes. Even if the dissolution of the old is accepted, a new classification will take its place.
And in the interim, chaos ensues. You were born with male anatomy, but feel yourself to be a female? FREAK OUT! Quick get building a box for that!! This will not do. People CANNOT be roaming around being whatever it is they feel like being without a label assigned. (We must assign them bathrooms after all!!)
And let's not even get started on those who don't identify as either of the two categories, like either gender. Don't worry, you just haven't found the right box yet. Let us just stuff you into these other ones temporarily, or sit you in the corner, out of the way so we don't have to look at you and feel challenged or uncomfortable or reminded of our own ill-fitting labels we are too afraid to confront.
Gender is a big, topical example. But this is happening in a thousand little ways, every day, every moment.
And the worst thing of all is that we have insidiously been taught to do it to ourselves. Most of us willingly pick up our own labels and stick them on our chests -- perhaps because we instinctively know that it will make everyone else more comfortable. Since they've already done it too. Don't you dare not conform.
But I don't believe in this. We are more than just biological creatures, classified and labeled. There is something about us that transcends the physicality of our existence. There is something else that makes us who we are. Our souls.
I am ME first, everything else after that.
The hierarchy may be scientifically, socially, or financially convenient. But it doesn't define me.
Woman first, me second.
Me first, woman second.
It seems like a subtle shift (and insert whatever label you want in place of woman) -- but the implications are huge.
As I write this, I haven't even fully comprehended what I am saying, or what it means for me.
Right now, I am in the midst of shedding labels - labels of defined womanhood, relationships, faith... and all the other subtle ones I'm not even aware of yet -- trying to get to the core of me.
I may pick back up some of these labels -- don't get me wrong, clarity is good. Lines and definition and boundaries can be good. They help us move through life without having to make a thousand decisions all over again with every step. And inadequate words are often the best we have to describe the complexity and nuance of who we are.
But labels and words should be the tools for expressing the truth of ourselves in life -- they should not become the shackles that bind us to one particular, socially acceptable idea of who we are.
And those labels that I do pick back up, I may not put many of them back on myself. Maybe they'll go on parts of my life that I choose to be there, or on ideas I have that I identify with. Labels can be very expedient for defining certain things -- for example, salt and sugar. I'm grateful I don't have to taste both every time I want one.
But labels should not be so permanently affixed to human beings.
I am Me first, everything else second. (And so, everything else open to change and transformation.)
Words like woman, mum, introvert -- they help define parts of myself, they help convey something about myself that I want you to know through our shared understanding of the language. But they do not define ME.
ME is something beyond even the sum of all those different parts. Something eternal, while all else can be transient and changeable.
But what about US?
Well here's the funny paradox -- the labels we use ostensibly to make it easier to connect -- to find the others 'like us' -- these may be the very things keeping us so disappointingly disconnected. Not least because we spend so much time defending the labels, judging the validity of our own and others identities, sticking negative labels on things that make us uncomfortable. How are we meant to love anyone truly when we are too busy with labels?
When you get to the core of who you are, free of the burden of all this, it actually becomes much easier to connect.
Unity is not the overlooking of difference to 'tolerate' or 'accept' others. Unity is the recognition that who we really are is perfectly unique and yet perfectly the same, perfectly equal -- beautiful, eternal souls in temporary bodies.
The people 'like us' are the people right beside us. Turn and look at anyone -- that person is your brother or sister. They are like you. Seeking love. Seeking connection. Look past all the labels that have likely warped them and weighed them down. See the soul inside.
We were created to be one with our creator and with each other. And this is where we are all along to return.
Perhaps this is what is meant when people say Namaste. The divine, eternal in me recognises the divine, eternal in you -- through all the external layers to who you truly are. Just like me.
The soul in me and the soul in you.
Me and You.
This is where we begin.