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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

What am I?

This isn't a riddle, it's a question I've genuinely been grappling with recently. Let me back up a little. I've been suffering from depression over the last month or so. I've found this quite hard to accept - I get seasonal depression, I can't be depressed in the summer! - or even recognise. When the sun is shining, spring flowers are out and the birds are singing, it can be quite hard to see that underneath my appreciation of all this, there are still some serious problems. However, it got bad enough to force me to face up to it when I just couldn't face going to an event that I'd usually enjoy a lot. I've been talking to my dear friend Sarah, who is a counsellor and has been helping me figure out what's going on in my head.

There are a couple of obvious things, like money worries and the general election result, but we've turned up some less obvious things too. One of these is loss of identity. I used to be a scientist, but I don't do science any more. It's been very hard to let go of; to accept that I no longer know what's going on in my field of research (or anyone else's, for that matter), that I'm no longer in a position to conduct experiments. If I'm not doing science any more, I'm not really a scientist, am I? I talked to Sarah about the difference between human being and human doing and, although I've come across the conceptual distinction before and it has intuitive appeal, if I'm honest, I just don't get it.

I am wedded to the idea that what one is is defined by what one does simply because I can't envisage a human who is not doing anything. If you take away all activity, what is left? If anything is left, I can't see that it differentiates between one human and another. I'll try another tack. Suppose we take a quality such as, kindness. It might be true to say that someone is a kind person even when they're not doing very much at the time. But isn't kindness just a disposition to act kindly? I can't find any meaningful qualities that don't come back to action in the end. I am a human doing.

So, what do I do? This a question that is often asked in social situations, when meeting new people. It's one I have trouble with; I don't really know what the answer is. It's not a bad question, and the person asking it is simply trying to find out a bit more about me. When I had a job that I felt reflected my personal identity (even, formed a big part of my identity), I had no problem with this question. Answering it would be a very concise way of conveying a lot of information about myself. Now, I don't have that kind of job. The occupation I've chosen is unpaid, but that's not the main problem. I'm not sure that self-sufficient is a very good representation of who I am, not least because I'm not very good at it. Competence is a big deal for me, but I'll leave that for another time.

I now have a disconnect. I accept the identification of a person with what they do, yet what I've chosen to do with my life doesn't feel like who I really am. What am I, then? I think I've found an answer that might work for me. I used to think of myself as a scientist, but if I go back a little further, to my undergraduate days, I had a dual identity. I studied both philosophy and psychology and at the time, was equally happy identifying with either. I pursued psychology as a career mainly because it seemed like a more realistic option. Now I've stopped doing that, perhaps I can re-identify with the other branch of my studies? I never really left philosophy behind. Look at this blog post: It's all about picking ideas apart. Human being vs human doing? What does that really mean? What's the point of asking, What do you do?

Rodin's The Thinker

This is what I do: I think about things. I am a philosopher. That's not an answer I'll give when people ask, What do you do? It sounds pretentious and is also misleading. I'm not doing philosophy at the highest level, and I'm not getting paid to do it. However, it is an answer that gives me an identity I'm comfortable with. An intellectual life has value, at least in my world view. I need no longer feel that I'm trying and failing to be self sufficient. This answer is for me. I still need to find an answer for other people, for use in casual social situations, but I hope that now the question won't be poking at an open wound. If I'm happy with my own view of myself, I don't mind too much what other people think of me.


  1. Interesting read Rachel, I chose from the age of 20 after my first child was born I was going to be a stay at home mum , this was the right decision for me I loved making things , growing veg etc. I admit I had the security of my partner bringing in a wage albeit a low income, but I did learn to manage on very little , no fancy holidays and most of the time no car , looking back I suppose I did have a loss of identity , occasionally people would ask me " what do you do , where do you work" then I would question myself should I get a paid job , the family could have holidays and we could buy a decent car that lasted more than 12 months, I think Radio 4 was my saviour and kept me informed politically, world events and considering I didn't have any I loved the Money Programme , you will always be a scientist Rachel but for the time being you are a self sufficient wannabe who thinks xx

    1. It's funny. I assumed that if I had children, being a mother would be a satisfying and socially acceptable identity, but evidently not. You've also got me thinking about how closely connected are the lack of money and the lack of job. In my mind they're fairly separated. Although the lack of money is stressful, that's not the main reason I feel bad when people ask, "What do you do?" If I felt that what I'm doing is worthwhile (and identifiable!), I wouldn't have so much trouble with the question. Maybe I should be blunt and ask them back, "Are you asking how I spend my time, or how we make a living?" Thinking about it, they're probably asking the latter, which is why rather unproductive self-sufficiency isn't a very satisfying answer.

  2. I struggled with similar issues after quitting my job. I think in our culture we're just soooo programmed to define ourselves by our careers, that when you take a different path, it's hard to know where you fit in. Plus, I think having a paid position makes us feel important and gives us a sort of validation that it's hard to achieve when you're just living your life.

    But here's the thing. You have nothing to prove. You don't need to justify your existence to yourself or anyone else. And you don't need a job title in order to "count" as a human being!

    Also, I take issue with the idea that you're not doing a good job at being self-sufficient. I'm constantly amazed by all the stuff that you do! I've often thought that you should consider writing a book about your experiences because they are so unique, and because you have picked up so many skills that most people wouldn't have a clue about where to start (building solar panels, installing a radiant heat system, creating a functioning heat oven thing, making soap from chicken fat (holy moly!), all sorts of incredible cooking & preserving things, foraging for wild herbs, the list goes on and on!

    You know, from the American perspective, we'd call what you are doing "homesteading," and most people I know would consider that to be a very honorable profession!

    1. You say the nicest things, Cat :-) I need to focus on that 'nothing to prove' bit - I'm having trouble convincing myself of that, but I'm working on it. The validation that comes with being paid is a good point. When you think about it, it doesn't really mean much, but it's a convenient crutch - "Of course what I'm doing is worthwhile - someone's willing to pay for it."

      I have wondered about writing a book. I'll start with trying to get my blogging mojo back, but then if I'm feeling a little stronger, maybe I'll start trying to organize it all into a book. Five years into the new life is quite a good length of time to make a decent story, don't you think?

      It's kind of odd, though it makes perfect sense when you think about it, that homesteading should have a solid place in American culture, but not in British. But yes, you're right, that's exactly what I'm doing. It's nice to know that it would recognized and respected in your part of the world, even if some people in this country find it a bit confusing.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Your comment came through to my email before you deleted it. I just wanted to say thank you.

    2. Hello, I am just about to retir early. I have spent the past 25 years working as a broker. I spent the 5 years prior to that working in mining and I still think of myself as an engineer. I will be an engineer until I die, just not a working one. Being a scientist is surely a state of mind as much as it is an activity. Being free to decide what you do all day is a great priviledge. Enjoy it. If asked what you do say that you not defined by your activity but by your freedom. After all the most interesting people are generally those that you cannot conveniently pidgeon hole.

    3. "Defined not by your activity but by your freedom." I like that. Thank you :-)


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