Agency and identity

I got called wholesome yesterday. I was speaking with a guy I used to work with, telling him about the latest developments. He encouraged me to go out and look for another job, telling me that I had a lot to offer. Then he dropped the W-word. That was one of my strengths, he said.

I’m pretty definite that no one has ever called me wholesome before. In my own mind, I have a picture of the wholesome type, rosy-cheeked, straight as a die and ever courteous. It doesn’t entirely gel with my conception of myself – I’m not rosy-cheeked to start with. And while I’m courteous, I’m also blunt and assertive, opinionated and occasionally sarcastic.

I figured he meant it in a particular way – honest, well-mannered and of good character. I’m happy to accept those traits – I am well-mannered because it was how I was brought up to be, and I believe in being honest. And I recognise that there’s a side of me that a lot of mothers would love to have their daughter bring home – polite, respectful and with reassuringly measured intelligence. And I come from a good family 😉

But all of us are a complex combination of qualities that are in perpetual motion, shifting according to circumstance and environment. We all try to project a persona, often different depending on who we’re with – and then there’s the view we have of ourselves. Often, I think, that’s at great odds with how the world sees us.

You have to wonder why it matters. It’s an indulgence, but it’s all a piece of the human frailty all of us possess. It’s what drives us on, though, what fuels our expectations and gives rise to the decisions that we make. It becomes our identity, but without that, who are we?

Case in point is the situation I find myself in at work currently. I’m aggrieved because I believe I’m being short-changed, symptomatic of a lack of respect – or so I reckon. There are practical considerations in that – I need more money, and I deserve it – but there’s also the ego and deeper psychological scarring at play.

I referred yesterday to how this has been a trigger event for me. As my first bitter emotions subsided, I was left with a clearer idea of why it felt so personal – and it relates to the time that I was homeless.

Before I was homeless, I was confident and capable and rarely doubted my ability to succeed. I knew I was smart, but I also believed I had the will and energy to manifest destiny for myself. It may seem naive now, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Besides, I had good reason to believe it – I had pulled myself up by my bootstraps and made a middling success of my career. Cue Jaws music.

Then, of course, everything changed, for reasons long described.

When you’re unemployed and homeless, when you’re broke and rely on the mercy of others to get by, there’s a lot that goes through your mind. It’s a real battle just to remain on an even keel – to get up in the morning and try again and believe that in the face of 99 failures, the 100th time will succeed. It’s more complex and messy than I could ever hope to describe, but I was lucky in the end that I did finally succeed in getting out of it – though it was closer to the 400th attempt.

One of the things I remember is the sense of being an outsider – banished from normal society and foreign to the comforting routines and rituals of domestic existence. I felt different from everyone and not in a good way.

A part of that is an absolute sense of powerlessness. I felt cast on the winds of fate, with little I could do to change direction. I felt invisible and irrelevant and entirely unimportant. I became very aware of how small I was, and I hated it.

When finally I got out of that situation, it was in the smallest way. I started at the bottom again, and I was relieved to have that. Gradually, I worked myself back somewhere towards where I used to be, though still well short. As that began to unfold, I felt increasing angst, reminded of how much I had lost and how different things were. More than anything else, I was frustrated by the lack of agency in my life. When you’re digging yourself out of a deep hole, the margins are small. You feel as if you could tumble back anytime, and that limits your options. Even today, I feel far distant from who I was before and still feel outside of life.

And this is why I’m triggered now. I’ve worked hard to regain something for myself, and I deserve more than what I’m being given. That’s not entitlement; that’s just plain fact. Unfortunately, what’s right and fair plays little part in the ebbs and flows of life, and you feel it most when you’re at the bottom.

I’ve been at the bottom. I’m trying to climb. All I want now is to be justly rewarded for that. Instead, I’m being denied for spurious and pragmatic business reasons. But what can I do? Once more, I have that sense of being powerless – of being exploited, in fact. It feels so wrong to me…so evil, in a way.

I guess it’s always been like this, but I was always too young or too confident to know it. Now that I’ve fallen back, I can see it and understand the deliberate nature of it. What is right comes second to what is pragmatic, and people like me – without agency – just have to cop it.

That’s why, for my self-respect, I have to get out. If I give way to it, they know they have me – and I know they have me, too. I refuse to be powerless. I’ve come this far; I can’t fall back.

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