I’ve been mostly a healthy person in adulthood. As someone who works in the health and fitness industries as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor (and someone who oversees those programs), being healthy is quite literally part of my job. I just didn’t realize how much of my identity I had wrapped up in it until recently.
A month or so ago I was having some pretty severe back pain. I have a genetic condition called spondylolisthesis which can once in awhile cause decent amounts of lower back pain if I do certain lifts or am standing for too long, but the pain from weeks ago was much worse than I had experienced. At the same time, my knees were swollen and painful, which was certainly out of the ordinary, but I’ve been an athlete my whole life so at some point I expected them to protest the decades of jumping and sprinting and quick lateral movements.
Then last week it all started to get much worse and my hands started to swell and then, to be honest, I don’t remember much other than everything hurting so badly my body was painful to the touch and exhaustion. Bone deep exhaustion. I was basically sleeping fitfully for all hours of the day and night, only getting up to sometimes puke from the amount of pain or try to drink/eat something. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
It’s gotten a tiny, sometimes barely perceptible, bit better every day. Right now I’ve been upright for 6 hours but I can already feel my eyes burning and my hips hurting from standing/sitting during those hours. The brain fog is still there, hovering just above my eyebrows waiting for any time I want to remember a movie’s name or the phrase “vending machine”. I was talking to a mom yesterday at soccer practice and I could not for the life of me remember her kid’s name, who is a good friend of my son and who has been to our house many times.
I’m a healthy person, I have a freakishly good memory. I’m at all of the sporting events, I carry all the bags, I have limitless energy. I am very physical with my husband, constantly hugging or holding hands, etc. This is who I knew myself to be…until I wasn’t any of those things for a time.
It’s got me thinking about the other ways I’ve noticed we hang on to identities too hard and for too long. Right now most of my kids play sports. For the better part of 16 years we’ve been in the world of youth sports and all the things that come with that. As our kids have reached high school age all the things you’ve heard about parents of youths in sports is amplified, it’s like youth sports on uppers. Maybe one day I’ll write a screenplay about what it’s like to, in theory, be involved in a thing but constantly find yourself on the outskirts. I want my kids to do well but not more than I want them to have fun or to continue a love affair with moving their bodies. Having them play at the collegiate level would be cool but since roughly 2% of all high school athletes get any form of scholarship to college, it’s so unlikely that I don’t care to put any eggs in that basket. If I were to ever write a screenplay I think people completely outside of the youth/young adult sports realm would not believe the politics, debauchery, backstabbing and cut throat world that it most assuredly is. Even when I witness the medieval nature of it all I still can’t believe it.
Our oldest turned 16 and is now driving which means I rarely see him between time with friends, girlfriend, work and coffee runs. I think often of how scared and lost I would be had I built my foundation of Being Tesi on the back of Being Trysten’s Mom. Had I invested all of myself and my identity into that one thing, man would I be tumbling right now while he is blissfully unaware, being a teenager in much the same way I was once upon a time.
We, as parents, cling to the identities of our kids so hard our knuckles are white and they are scared shitless to disappoint us. If we’ve poured all that we have and all that we are into our babies, we have no idea who we are outside of them. And so if they don’t make the team or if they don’t start or if they don’t get the scholarship, then who are we? We’ve built the houses of star athlete and wunderkind and Johnny’s Mom and so what happens when it comes crumbling down?
So too with our jobs, right? I remember our old pastor in Iowa doing a sermon on why it’s so hard for each generation to let go and reach back to lift up the next generation. Pastor Matt Temple was brilliant, and continues to be brilliant, in his analysis. The older generations can’t let go because it’s who they are. They, generally speaking, don’t know who they are without the job they’ve held for decades. It’s why you hear (ridiculous and untrue) critiques of the younger generations. Because if they were to be honest, they would have to say, “These young adults are brilliant and they are showing me that I might not know everything I thought I knew and that threatens me,” And no one has taught them to be that honest or that vulnerable, right?
This isn’t a dig at the current older generation, this has happened with every generation from the beginning of time. These exact things were said of the baby boomers when they were entering adulthood/the workforce (seriously, look it up. It’s fascinating to read newspapers from the time and realize nothing changes.) So instead of creating a culture of mentorship and camaraderie from our generations soon to be aging out of the workforce and our generations coming in, we’ve somehow made them to compete with one another. Forced them to cling to careers and identities longer and harder than is healthy for ANYONE involved. That’s why we have the really dumb takes about younger generations not being up the work, because the older generations (and often the authors of these dumb takes and think pieces) have married their identity in their job, in their title and what else would one do if their entire identity existence was being threatened?
It’s also why we have “proud boys” and other white nationalist groups marching to Trump’s rallies. Their identities have been wrapped up in their skin color and their cultural designation as superior and now someone tells them it’s being threatened by someone of a different skin color and gender and so they march and they vote and they kill and they harass.
Celebrating our identities can be really important and really joyful. I love identifying as a woman, I love everything about the sisterhood that comes with that. I love being a Christian, I love being a wife and a mom and an auntie and a health nut. It’s pride month and you better believe nothing makes me weepier than seeing LGBTQIA people celebrate that identity. When we go to Ethiopia or cook/eat Ethiopian food and I see the pride my boys have in their birth culture, in their identities as Ethiopians, it makes me incredibly happy. Pride in our identities can be good.
But our identities can also make us sick. When we hold on to dogma or religion so hard that we’re willing to ostracize, shame, oppress, and even kill-it’s made us sick.
When we hold on to our designated gender so hard that we refuse to believe not everyone’s experience with their gender is the same as ours-it’s made us sick.
It’s one thing to acknowledge your skin color or your wealth but if you squeeze all that too tight and wrap your identity around those until you don’t know who you are without it-it’s a matter of time before you too believe in your own superiority, until you too believe you have the right to things that others don’t by nature of your birth.
I’m an American, I’m grateful to have been born here. Right now I’m a little mad at it and have thought often of how the great design of democracy had some real big holes in it from the start (genocide of Native Americans and slavery come to mind). I still get a little weepy when I listen to Whitney Houston’s rendition of the national anthem and am able to recognize all the privilege that comes with being an American. But desperately holding on to my americanness, that kind of abject nationality, hasn’t caused one good thing to happen. Ever. The stranglehold nationalism has on our country has suffocated both its citizens and its democracy.
Being Zach’s wife is one of my favorite identities. He’s the best, he just simply is. But what happens if I’ve intertwined our identities so tightly and something happens? One of my best friends lost her young husband late last year. She’s always balanced her identities well and yet she’s still reeling (because of course). But had she not always done trips on her own with her kids while her husband worked, had she not worked to love her husband hard and well but also recognize her own humanity outside of that..what would have happened when she lost him then?
I love my kids. If I glance up from my computer right now, all 5 are staring back at me with the forced smiles of school pictures. I love them so much just thinking about them makes me tear up. Kids grow up and leave for career or college, they maybe get married and maybe raise kids and though we’ll always be their parents, it just won’t be the same. If we wrap our identity too much around being their mom, we will suffocate them with expectation. And we’ll never fully allow them to grow up and into the people they were always meant to be.
In the health world we see it in people with eating disorders or those who work out in excess. Even our love for health and wellness, good in its purest sense, can turn sour with too much of our identity involved.
I know my identity surrounding my health isn’t what’s made me sick but it has reminded me that there comes a point in all of it where the identity can no longer add anything to your life but will take away instead. From you, from your family, your community, the world.
I don’t have the answer here, I’m not really very good at all of this after all, as evidenced by me reeling a little bit the last few weeks when I couldn’t do the things that I thought made up the whole of me. I just think that we, myself included, have to start really looking at how hard we are investing in things that can slip away in moments. That we need to start, as a culture, learning how to celebrate our identities but not cling to them at the expense of other identities not shared. That maybe if we start to look at all of our identities with an open palm instead of a closed fist, they’ll be able to naturally flow in and out of importance, as all healthy things must do.
As with all things, when we close our fist to try to protect what’s inside, there’s always a cost. It’s always at the expense of something or someone else. Trying to hold on to what’s serving us now means we close ourselves off to what might serve us later. We shut ourselves off to receiving more. More love, more joy, more experiences, more identities, more people, more stories, more understanding, more compassion.
At some point everything I love and value and identify with will morph and change and maybe even leave. I’ll find God in nature rather than the church, my kids will grow up and out, my health might fail, my country will disappoint me, things will change. What this latest health crisis has taught me is that I need to continue to invest all that I have in the things I love and value but not cling to any of it or to any certain outcome or I will ruin all that is good and holy and wondrous in the process.
I don’t know what caused this latest lapse in health for me, it’s perhaps another sign of an identity that I hold too tightly to that my hours of research have done nothing but leave me with more questions than answers. But I know that I’m recommitting to loving every part of me with the same intensity I always have but I’m also remaining open to change, scary as it might be, so that myself and those around me are allowed to flourish in my love and not wilt from it.