‘It is your business. . . to keep the channel open’

A therapist’s guide to using the best part of yourself

If you’re the type of person who is making New Year’s resolutions, or who is given to the questions “Who am I?” or “What Have I Become?” I offer this essay by Southern California marriage and family therapist Dr. Ronald Soderquist, to be published in the January issue of Mind & Spirit.

 ‘It is your business. . . to keep the channel open’

‘It is your business. . . to keep the channel open’

Who Are You? Defining Yourself Within

It was a lovely blue sky afternoon at the annual women’s tennis tournament in Manhattan Beach. We had bleacher seats near the top, which was alright because it was an unusually small stadium for a competition that attracted eight of the top 10 women’s tennis players in the world. As we relaxed during a break between games, I noticed two women sitting further down and to the left waving at us. When one caught my eye she called out, “I have been looking at you. Are you someone special?” That immediately activated my funny bone and I replied, “Well, I am very special to my family and friends.” She continued, “I mean, are you in the movies or on television?” I couldn’t resist, “Well, my agent has asked me to come incognito today.” A silly question deserves a silly answer. But I am grateful to that stranger for her question, “Are you someone special?” As we look at that fascinating question, let’s start with the women and their struggle to find identity in a “man’s world.”

For much of human history, half the population has responded to our important question, “How can I be special? I’m just a girl.” It’s true, you won’t get by with that kind of stereotypical-talk with my granddaughter, Emily, a Cal Poly honors graduate, who will soon be in law school. But you don’t need to be a history buff to know that male babies have been treated as more special than female babies all over the world. We remember how Henry VIII sent his wife, Anne Boleyn, to the guillotine because she produced Elizabeth instead of a boy. By the way, don’t you just love the irony of how despised Elizabeth became a great leader of her nation?!

Even in today’s modern society, we still encounter a multitude of “I’m just a girl” examples. Over and over, we see evidence right here at home of young women hesitating to use their full ability because they fear men will resent them. For instance, recently at a small Midwest college, a reporter was shocked to find women students apprehensive of being too forward in classroom discussions.

So, how do we discover we are someone special? For some it comes bubbling up from mysterious genetic sources. The noted psychologist, Abraham Maslow, writes: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint and a poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” We remember how little Mozart, by age five, was already composing minuets. Later he could hear entire symphonies in his head. And he was lucky to have a father who taught and encouraged him.

However, not all fathers are pleased with an offspring’s choice of identity. Eduard Manet’s father was a French judge and, naturally, wanted his son to pursue a career in law. There must have been some pretty heated arguments in that home. But, when I wander through art galleries I am always thankful Eduard embraced his true identity.

That still leaves us with the question of how the rest of us discover who we are since most of us are not born with genius talents in music or art. Therefore, parental and cultural messages shape our identity. For example, in my wife, Elda’s family, her mother’s message was: “You can do anything you want to do. You are capable and smart. Go for it!” On that Minnesota farm Elda got a different message from her father: “As the eldest daughter you have an obligation to stay home to help your mother with the younger children.” So we listen to the messages and we make choices. Elda chose to listen to her mother’s message.

However, the female identity is growing stronger not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, young women in India are choosing between two very different messages about their identity. Until the last few years, if you were a young woman in India, no one cared about your unique talents. No one asked about your dreams. There was no point in imagining a career because there was only one path for you: your family selected a husband and after the wedding, you moved into his parental home. Now, for the first time in India’s long history, some women are boldly breaking custom by leaving home after college to explore their talents as fashion designers, aerobic instructors, software engineers or radio DJ’s. In the Indian culture, these are daring and sometimes even dangerous choices.

The Times article also described how one young woman, Ms. Mandala, after college, wanted to savor her independence. As she explored her freedom she said: “What is ‘me’? What is ‘myself?'” We are reminded of Henrik Ibsen’s character Nora in his play, A Doll’s House and Nora’s standing against the culture of her day. Nora’s husband, Helmer says, “Before everything else you’re a wife and a mother.” Nora says, “I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before everything else I am a human being just as much as you are. At any rate I shall try to become one.” Women, and all people, for that matter, must be able to identify themselves within before they can act as a mother, father, sister, brother, etc. to anyone else.

As I prepared this article, I also pestered friends and relatives with the question, “who are you?” So when we visited Elda’s 88 year-old Aunt Marcella, I said: “Marcella, I’m going to ask you a question. Please just give your spontaneous answer. Who are you?” Her response was dramatic. She quickly straightened up in her chair, raised her arms as though holding a bat and said: “I’m a catcher on a champion softball team!” Marcella’s favorite memory of her identity went back 70 years. She added: “When I graduated from high school there were just four choices for me as a woman: getting married, nursing, teaching or a working as a secretary.” Like women in India, her identity was limited by what society expected of her. Therefore her favorite identity was a time when she felt free to express her natural identity. Now, all over the world, the limitations are collapsing for women. While perhaps not as dramatic, many of us men are also claiming our humanity and saying, like Nora, “before everything else I am a human being.” We are claiming the right to feel, the right to be both fierce and tender.

In my office I frequently hear something similar from women in their fifties: “I am at a new stage of life when I have time to focus on me. I actually have time to think about what I enjoy doing. I am still trying to find myself. Now I can make choices. Do I want to go back to school? Start a business? The children are launched. I’m ready to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.” She is “recasting herself” and like women in India she is asking: “Who is ‘me?'” I ask her: “What do you love to do so much you would be willing to pay to do it?” Then we explore her deepest values. Ultimately, by cultivating our natural talents and deepest values we can find a way to live with meaning, with love and with hope.

Dancer Martha Graham said it best: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open