“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Who I believe myself to be
I have been captivated by this question since Alice’s Adventures were first read aloud to me as a kid: “Whooooooo are youuuuuuuuuu?”
Here’s how I might answer the Caterpillar. Most days there is a Who-Is who gets pissed off when I am interrupted, a Who-Is who calms when my cat curls up in my lap, and a Who-Is who avoids looking too closely in the mirror when I wake up in the morning. I trust these parts of me are always somewhere in the room of my Life, even when the proper stimulus has not provoked them to appear. These are things that I think I know about who I am.
It is only practice that has me look more deeply, to see their stories.
The Interrupted One tells this story:
Whatever it is I am doing is important, more important than answering the phone, the door, a question, a request, a demand, an urgency. It’s about getting this thing, whatever it is, done. It’s also about maintaining my preferred feeling-state: the pleasure I have from completion; the nourishment I receive from absorption in my work, in the moment; feelings of usefulness and worth. And avoiding the discomfort, anxiety, even panic, at leaving something unfinished, hanging in mid-air.
Sometimes there is wisdom in turning my back on the interruption. What I am doing actually is more important than the interruption. At other times my task-persistence is a limitation that keeps me from connecting with a real need, a real movement of life. We could call this limitation habit, or compulsion, or even denial. It binds me, and has had some some harmful consequences for the people in my life. Because…
The Interrupted One’s story conveys limitations and wisdom both
What I truly cannot bear is the disruption to my sense of self, my very continuity, which so much of the time hitches a ride on my tasks, activities, and feeling-states, the very idea that I have a self, or am a self. If I stop, I will go out like a candle flame in a breeze of the unknown. Everything I identify as myself disappears. The “I” disappears. Annihilation is complete.
This story is mixed and mixed up. It carries my neuroses, my personality difficulties. It carries my female lineage, with its theme of abandonment. Those are limitations. This story also bears the wisdom of existential truths:
I am a do-er, a feeler, a thinker, a relational being.
I am a concealer and magician – who makes parts of myself appear and disappear.
I – and the world I live in remain full of mysteries – some of which will be revealed and become known to me, new Who-Ises to be invited in.
Some of the mysteries, “interruptions” like suffering and death, will remain unsolvable.
And I remain a being of Mystery that, when I remember it, I can approach only as I approach the Great Kindness, with awe and gratitude.
Make room for the Problem-Solver!
There is another Who-Is that gets into the mix: My Problem-solver.
She shadows the one who invites everything in, wanting to – oh, just clean up the parts of me that show up, make them a little more presentable – or, as my healer once said to me – keep them in the entrance hall, and never quite let them into the house without a shower and a clean set of clothes.
The Problem-Solver also sees the Unknown as an enemy, so she keeps pushing me to discover more about myself or about puzzling or horrifying aspects of Life – wisdom, there. Her limitation: she doesn’t know when to stop. She does not recognize her powerlessness when she is up against the unsolvable, or up against the Great Kindness.
I arrive at a true answer to the Caterpillar as I invite them all in
So, Problem-solver, welcome, please come in.
The Interrupted One, come in.
The Concealer and Magician be welcome here.
Come in all of you, with your stories about who I believe myself to be.
And as I stay with this dance of acceptance and change in this way, I may lose my ready answers to the Caterpillar’s question. But the Great Goodness has my back, helps me to be in my life just as it is, and to change what I need to change.