Twilight Times Feature
Multi-talented Elizabeth Wicker Bennefeld gives us the writer's life with a Christian perspective in her personal essay.
It's easy to get one's identity tangled up in a specific aspect of life. It's even expected, at times. When I submitted a short autobiographical sketch to my nonfiction writing workshop for critiquing, one member suggested changing "was employed as a computer programmer" to "was a computer programmer," the implication being that the two phrases mean the same thing. I don't know if a woman would have made this suggestion, or not. I've heard, though, that men tend to identify themselves by their job titles or career choices. I think of myself as a writer. When I say I was "employed as" a computer programmer, that's precisely what I mean. Programming a computer was no more part of who I am than was my subsequent position of payroll coordinator.
Even when I say, I am a writer, people ask me what I write. They may be looking for an answer that indicates a specific genre, but if I were to answer with the first thought that comes to mind, I'd say, "I write whatever I feel like writing."
Little boxes! More and more, over the years, I felt as though I was packaged in the smallest of a nest of dozens of boxes, rather like the "dolls within dolls" that I've seen in gift shops. Life comes with too many external expectations that I'm not comfortable with. I have to respond to too many agendas that are not my own. I find myself resenting the amount of time it takes to get through the obligations that have to be met before I can get to my own stuff.
How good a job can I do on those obligations, though, if I resent having to deal with them at all? And, how many of those obligations are legitimately mine? I don't really believe that the world would come to an end if I were to drop one of the two dozen balls I'm juggling once in a while.
Memories come to mind . . . voices from the past tell me that I mustn't be a quitter. If I start something, I've got to finish it. I have to be consistent. Why did I get involved, if I didn't intend to see it through? There are instances, of course, in which I have made commitments. When I have committed myself, I've considered myself to be fairly well informed on what's involved in the commitment. If the terms and obligations involved in the commitment have been misrepresented, then I reevaluate.
Sometimes, it's wise to spend some time in an organization or activity before making decisions as to where one wants to make commitments. When I first joined my current church congregation, I joined everything in sight. I signed up to be a reader at the contemporary worship service. I played the piano for some of the services, and sang in the choir. I took Stephen Ministry training, and taught several sessions in their continuing education program. I sang in the adult choir for the regular services and composed several songs. I wrote devotional pieces, calls to worship, and even a Bible study. I joined a women's group and taught Bible study lessons. I was even a member of the evangelism committee for a while.
Nine years later, I have sorted out what, among all those possibilities, really fulfills me. I enjoy writing pieces for devotions and meditation, and I am a compassionate listener. And, the writing almost always takes precedence over the listening. I tried everything on for size, and decided what suited me. I am not displaying a lack of consistency or dedication or commitment by not continuing in all of the roles I took on during the first five years I belonged to the congregation. What I did was to gather evidence, and then make informed choices.
This is what I imagine childhood and adolescence should have been about. Trying out different roles to see which, if any, suited me. I don't know why I expected to be good at everything I tried, but somewhere I got it into my head that if I wasn't perfect in something the first time, I should get out of the way and let someone else do it. If I'm a choir member, this year, I should always be one. If I have taught Bible school for the past four summers, I should continue to do so. I can add activities only if I do them well, and don't drop any of the existing activities to which I've committed myself.
It doesn't work that way. I'm a dabbler. I try things out to see what they feel like. I find things that I enjoy, and I find things I would never care to do again. There are activities I'm good at, and activities I cannot perform at all. And, even if I turn out to be good at something, I've discovered that I may choose not to do it, in the end, simply because there is no lasting joy for me in the venture.
I am myself, and not what I do, or even what I do well. I may choose to describe myself by referring to a job or avocation or relationship, but I am none of these things. Not even the composite of all those descriptors: writer, poet, daughter, sister, wife, and neighbor. All these labels only serve to make a rough outline, a silhouette that vaguely resembles me. At any time, I could walk away from any or all of those descriptors, or one or more could be torn away from me by some catastrophic event or regional disaster. I could be blinded or crippled in an automobile accident. A tornado could wipe out our neighborhood or my old hometown.
If I insist on defining myself to myself by a tangible but transient trait, I run the risk of becoming nobody in the blink of an eye. I turn my identity over to that which is not only beyond my control, but not inclined towards benevolence on my behalf.
Once again, I find myself in a position of moving on to new pursuits and relationships, untangling myself from the activities and associations that had come to identify me. Transitions are unnerving. Change is frightening from the inside, and often perceived as betrayal by the others in one's life. There is the converse, too, though. What I perceive as a major defining factor, a significant part of who I am, may be viewed as peripheral by others. They may not understand why cutting a particular tie might seem so traumatic. This is particularly true of those who were not aware of the existence of that association or tie to begin with.
In particular, two emotionally abusive relationships from my past come to mind. While breaking free of them was traumatic and involved me in an internal need to totally redefine myself to and for myself, others in my life, unaware of either the existence or the nature of the relationships I was severing. They could not understand what all the fuss was about. I seemed to them to be going through sudden, dramatic changes for no apparent reason.
Who am I, then, in terms that provide me with a solid base upon which to live my life? I am no more or less than a beloved child of God, made in God's image and filled with the same creative Spirit that moved over the face of the waters at creation. I am one who will never be forgotten or forsaken, because I have been carved into the palm of God's hand.
Given this, my identity and self-worth do not rise or fall on the quality of a particular poem or work of art, or on my success or failure in any particular calling. What matters is not what I do, but, rather, who I am. And that, unlike a job or community or relationship, cannot be taken away.
This should leave me free to try new things without fear of failure, but it doesn't always. I fall back into defining myself by the ideas and expectations of other people. This is a habit that I find myself fighting against in one area of my life or another on an almost daily basis. I can accept and enjoy other people as they are. I am still learning how to accept and enjoy myself the same way.
Elizabeth Wicker Bennefeld and her husband Al live in Fargo, North Dakota USA, where she has worked since 1984 as a free-lance writer, copy editor, and nonfiction/academic style editor. She took a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and English, and was previously employed in computer programming and operations. Her poetry and prose have appeared in a variety of publications since the late 1960s.
Elizabeth and Al enjoy amateur radio, storm chasing as members of the local Skywarn group, and many other volunteer and family activities.