Yesterday my “Defining Ourselves” exhibit opened at the 333 Gallery in Annapolis. It will hang for three weeks. In today’s blog I’ve included images of my father and myself, along with our self-definitions. Below that is the talk I gave about this two-year photo/word project.
A two-year international and multi-generational photo and word project examining who we are
It’s funny how small things can grow. Take words, for example. Off-hand words are not usually meant to inspire or start anything. but it is what the listener does with the words that plants a seed.
This is what happened to me.
My father has Parkinson’s disease. One day, he was trying to perform an ordinary everyday action and, frustrated with a shaking hand, he said, “Bonnie, this isn’t me.”
Hearing those words awakened something in me and I wondered how he defines himeself. Then I wondered how I would define myself. The seed was planted and it grew.
I spent the next two years reaching out to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, challenging them to answer a question that goes to the core of their being.
The challenge question was this: “How do you define yourself? Answer in one sentence that begins with ‘I am…”
Some people I asked had never thought about who they are on any level of depth. Like many of us, they habitually go about their everyday lives, bobbing along on an ocean of chores and necessities.
Some people wondered why I was asking this question at all. Good question.
My answer? I believe that in order to appreciate the past, live in the moment and approach the future, we must have an understanding of who we are. And, in order to connect with our world—our environment, other people and our own spirits—we have to examine ourselves at our core. If we are unable to wrap ourselves around our own self-definition, then our lives and connections fall short of what is possible.
Before asking anyone else to answer this question, I knew I had to take on the task of defining myself.
After much thought, this is my self-definition:
I am a child of the universe who lives a rich life
of creativity, connections and possibilities.
I said child of the universe… child, yes, because I wonder, explore, feel, grow, find delight, learn, walk daringly into emotional minefields — all in a setting of naiveté, trust and optimism. Yes, a child’s point-of-view.
Of the universe suggests my membership in something larger than I am.
In considering the rest of the definition, I thought about what elements of my life, if they were to disappear, would cause me to feel less alive. The answer? I must create and I must connect. My creativity can take many forms.
My connections are with people , environment and spirit.
Possibilities...suggests growth, adventure, change. If we ever lose our sense of possibilities, then we are in the process of dying.
Finally, I consider my life to be rich because of shared energy in all its facets. It is a layered life rather than a linear one. Underlying my definition, my essence, is a broad sense of love.
So, my definition does not depend on my job/career and it doesn’t necessarily depend on my health. I can still be who I am…regardless.
The Process, Considerations
Once I had my own definition, then I could begin asking other people to define themselves. It started with family and friends. Then it extended to friends of friends and sometimes strangers who I approached with this question. Some never answered while others were intrigued by the question.
One thing I stood firm on. I refused to share anyone’s answer with those who were still struggling to find their own. This was uncomfortable for many. They wanted sample answers. They wanted to make sure they answered correctly and in the way I expected. My only condition was it had to be one sentence, of any length, that began with “I am.” I assured people that there were no right or wrong answers unless they didn’t follow those two conditions. Whatever they said would be correct because they were defining themselves and they knew themselves better than I did. Who was I to say they were wrong?
After I received each response, I then shared other answers and portraits. We scheduled a time to do a collaborative portrait that illustrated the self-definition. Logistics were difficult because people were spread around the globe. I made a 600-mile detour to Indiana to get one portrait. For another I flew to California and for another I drove to upstate New York. Some were taken in Japan. One problem I hadn’t anticipated was the difficulty there would be in scheduling time for the portraits. We’re talking about busy people. And some had the idea that this was a small on-going project with no end. They kept saying, “One day we’ll get together to do this.”
A few people responded through e-mail but, because of distance and time, we were unable to connect for a portrait.
Once time was scheduled, then we usually worked together to come up with the concept. As a photographer used to doing my own thing in my own way, this was a different kind of challenge for me. There were two of us working on the portrait. Some people were uncomfortable with showing their faces or being in front of a camera lens at all. I didn’t want to use anything that made someone uncomfortable but, at the same time, I insisted on remaining true to my concept. (If you want to know more about technical details such as camera, lights, etc., you can talk with me later.)
In spite of all the challenges, somehow, over the course of two years, this project has come to fruition. Amazing.
Answers have come from people ages 4 to 100 representing 12 countries. Responses include a Holocaust survivor, transgendered people, gays, lesbians, an airline pilot, Arabs, Jews, Christians. Most participants are not in the public eye – just ordinary people. However, some are known locally and internationally.
It fascinates me how people answered this question.
Of all the responses, 24% include career and hobbies in their definitions. Of course, this is not surprising. Consider how many hours a typical person might work at a job/career in a lifetime. Probably more than 93,000 hours, considering working ages 20 to 65.
Twelve percent mention God, spirit or the divine. This includes a wide range of believers and non-believers from various religious backgrounds.
And don’t forget love. Fifteen percent of those who responded to my question have “love” or a form of the word in their definitions. Petronio Bendito says it best in one of my favorite responses, “I am all that I love.” Many self-definitions made me think, but this one the most.
It is most significant that almost half—42%—defined themselves by their relationships. The percentage is even higher when you consider the definitions that imply relationships. This is the area of greatest similarly among respondents. I don’t think anyone would dispute the importance of relationships and how they lead us to new emotional places and better understanding of who we are.
Fred Muir, a Unitarian Universalist minister who participated in this project, puts it succinctly in his self-definition, “I am my relationships.”
It is noteworthy that most people did not define themselves by their nationality or race. Nine percent included age or age-related terms, the majority being young people. Thirteen percent used gender as part of their definitions but none of these were the two transgendered participants.
I find it interesting that 12% expressed a dichotomy, a feeling of the complexity and tug and pull of their being. How often have all of us felt fragmented and torn? How many of us sometimes do battle inside ourselves when making decisions? Recognition of this dichotomy is recognition of our full humanness. Joe Justice, police officer, said it well, “I am simple and complex, logical but emotional, aware yet eternally ignorant, powerful although miniscule—all of these dichotomies because I am human.”
In defining ourselves, there is a consideration of time. Ten percent connected in some way with time… past, present or future. Dirk Hamilton’s, the shortest definition, states simply, “I am here.” However, it is a deceptively simple answer. Those words imply that he embraces and lives in the present, an important tenet of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth where he says, “People who are able to be present in the now are closest to the essence of their true being.”
In President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, he pointed out, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” It is heartening that not one person in this project sought identity through ownership.
Seven percent of the people who responded to my question recognized an evolving self. For some, including my husband, before defining themselves, it was important to understand that who they are today may not be who they are tomorrow. A former student of mine, Justin Wainio, defined himself with this contradiction in mind, “I am always changing while always staying the same.” Anais Nin has an interesting comment in her diary. She says it’s impossible to define yourself because of possibilities. “How can I accept a limited definable self when I feel in me all possibilities? … I never feel the four walls around the substance of the self, the core. I feel only space.”
In fact, five percent mentioned “possibilities.” This perspective looks forward into the future for what can change, what can be and who we can further become. There is an openness in those who included “possibilities” … an openness and acceptance of the evolution of “becoming.”
You might be interested in the word art that goes with this exhibit. It is a combination of everyone’s self-defintion showing the most frequently used words as the larger ones. Look at it again. you’ll find it interesting.
Each one of the people who participated has a story and I have a story of my connection to them. David’s date to the high school prom is in the exhibit as well as an old boyfriend of mine.
Portraits are hanging in the room beyond the santuary, the hall and the entrance just off the hall. Space was limited but everyone who participated is represented. You will find smaller photos I took and definitions hanging on the silver tree. And on the bulletin board you’ll read definitions of people that I didn’t get around to photographing. There are a couple of pictures they sent to me. I hope you’ll add your own definition to the bulletin board. And please sign the guest book.
I hope you’ll talk among yourselves and connect in new ways today…
This has been a difficult but exciting journey inspired by my father’s comment and it grew into something much larger than I’d anticipated. I learned from everyone who answered and I discovered something part way into the project. This whole thing is not really about me or any one person. It’s about the you and me that makes up the we. Over the past two years, it has taken on a life of its own and I no longer own it. It is ours. Perhaps it is said best in an African Proverb:
We are because I am. I am because we are.
Bonnie J. Schupp
See some pictures from the exhibit opening.