We’re all like crabs. We develop shells that harden and protect us from the world, but then also keep us from growing and start feeling uncomfortable.
Those shells, for humans are called “identities.” Oh, I don’t mean of the “identify with” kind, which is artificial and frankly a bit daft. Like “constructed” and centralized societies those tend to be brittle and a bit insane and confining. Like a crab deciding, say, that they really want to wear a tin can, instead of growing his own shell naturally. Which now I think about it, used to be a thing for cartoon crabs of a certain type. More on that later.
It’s just that as life kicks us around, and things change, we fall into another ‘identity’, another way to spend our lives, and then get used to it, it hardens into becoming ‘that’s just who I am’ until the next round of kicking comes about.
In between we feel out of sorts, and for those of us who are writers, artists, creators, its a hellish time to try to function and do things, though also — often — when we produce our best stuff. There are reasons for this.
Um…. one of the strongest examples of these identities leads to what I call “Laid off middle aged man syndrome.” If you’ve been working at something forever and a couple of decades more, when you get laid off, particularly if you’re over sixty when finding new jobs becomes difficult, you often go through a year or two when you just can’t figure out how to function. Mostly, because all your ingrained responses and what has become instinctive to you to do, have become counterproductive. And because losing a job means losing your identification and also your daily routine, your contacts, what you do when you get up in the morning, how you dress, etc.
I found myself going through this when I was — ahem — laid off (to put it politely. When they lay you off they don’t put an interdict on your collaborating as a contractor on small projects you’ve been a part of since the beginning. Unless of course it’s personal. Never mind. That happens in real companies that aren’t part of the Mickey Mouse world of trad pub, too, so much more in trad pub which is like a family quarrel with contracts.) by Baen, at the end of 2018. For those wondering at the sudden long silence, and all that (which was dissipating at the end of 2019 and then…. More on that too) it was basically laid-off-middle-aged-man-syndrome.
I’d been a Baen writer for 20 years. It’s definitely an identity in the field, and a costly one, because it gets you ostracized by every other company. My life, my friends, the type of projects I even considered was bounded by Baen. I had in fact grown uncomfortable in the identity for a while (Not for political reasons, for the poopy heads who insist on reading MGC for hits. Though Baen is more of a conservative house to the extent it has any politics at all, and I’m instinctively more of a sans coulotte from the other side, valuing freedom above stability and not above cheering for a certain amount of “burn it all down” (which I found out to my dismay when I cheered the GME “stonk” buying kiddies on.)) I looked longingly at my friends playing in the vast open space of indie, while I was consigned to the kiddie pool of trad pub. They were making more and had more creative freedom, and more ability to set their own schedule too. But the identity had become me, to a great extent, and I felt I owed a debt of gratitude, too, for pulling me up after the horrible year of 2003 and for help in a couple of pinched situations.
So finding it withdrawn suddenly was startling and dismaying. And it was a problem because, rationally, I knew I hadn’t lost much of anything, and that I could build a better career (and in terms of life expectancy with a clear head, 50 is the new 30, so no problem.) But my entire rhythm of life was disrupted, and my back brain locked down hard because suddenly it didn’t know what it was. And frankly for those of us with lots of voices in our heads, to quote Terry Pratchett, it’s always important to know which voice is yours.
I identified the syndrome, and started working through it only by seeing friends about my age getting hit by this stuff (if more impersonally) from companies they’d worked for all their lives. (One of the big issues of tying health insurance — I could go on about how health insurance is stupid, except for catastrophic, and distorts the market, but that’s not the point of this post — to employment, is that around 60, when they deem you to be a high health risk, you’re liable to find yourself dumped, even if you might be offered a contract position after. And my friends range in age 10 years or so either side of me.)
Figuring out what it is, and that what just cracked and fell was the shell and not you, yourself, helps.
And part of the problem, is that more and more of us are going through this, not just through layoffs and the like, but because every profession, as far as I can tell, is in a state of flux due to rapid technological change and stupid government tricks.
But aside from those identities, there are others, very specific to our time or place in the world. These usually co-exist. I mean, where constructed identities chafe and fail is that they tend to be monorhythmic: they are artificially built to concentrate on one aspect of life and self. Which honestly tends to make people into cardboard cut outs. Say, for instance, you decide to become Vegan and build your identify around that. (Yes, most of you just rolled your eyes.)
I was once a little girl, and honestly I don’t know how my identity was, because it’s hard remembering things back in the Jurassic. It probably involved dinosaurs.
But my identity as a young woman included: studious scholar; free lance employee; glamorous guest at embassy and consulate parties (look, they served, for the top students in languages as a sort of audition for diplomatic jobs), fun friend with unexpected ideas, and the friend who pulled you back from trouble and from doing stupid things. (And if you think the last two are contradictory, yeah, maybe, in the abstract, but not really.)
Later as a young mother, I was mother, struggling writer, furniture rehabilitator, rescuer of cats (and occasionally wild life), Victorian house remodeller. They weren’t exactly distinct identities, since they merged into who I was, but at any given time, I could put the other hat on and a set of responses/ideas/how to act were built into it.
Which of course is both how we develop identities and why they’re useful. We develop identities out of habit. My habit of listening for the guys at any minute became the “young mother” identity. It was so much part of me that when they both were in school the breaking of that identity even for a few hours a day left me weird and discomfited. i couldn’t settle to work, and then I realized it was because I was listening for sounds and not hearing them, and silence is scary when you have littles.
And that is why identities are useful. They “automate” a lot of the things you need to do till they become second nature, and you don’t have to think before you respond.
Of course, those identities passed and were replaced by others. And others.
Some of it happens slowly, and when the identity hardens and starts to chafe, you’re not aware at first of where the discomfort comes from. And even when you are, you might choose to stay in there, because it pinches, but it’s known. You know how to do a ton of things without thinking, from what to eat in the morning, when to get up, how to dress, etc. And you have a circle that is comfortable with you that way.
But what’s become obvious to me is that if you do stay inside that shell, too afraid or too comfortable to leave behind the identity that has hardened to stone, you die. You might stay alive, mind you, technically. But part of you dies. You lose the ability to change and do other things. In a way it is the process we associate with “getting old” because in a more stable world of life long careers, it was.
Well, 2020 smashed most people’s identity with a hammer, including at fundamental levels like “will I ever wear anything but sweats again” and the identity of “I drive this route in this car to this office, and relate to my co-workers thus.”
And then — and yeah, I know what NPR says about how people will, more than ever, want to live in places like Silicon Valley. I’m surprised I’ve only seen a handful of such articles but I know their tone. Various publishing trades were printing these a decade and more ago, whistling past the grave yard of trad pub, insisting that those indies would come crawling back, crawling back, they said — the annus horriblis proved that people didn’t need to work in offices to produce, and might in fact be more productive outside offices. (I told them this would happen.)
Which means people are moving. People are moving to places they like, to places they think they might like, to places that will give the kids room to run, away from places where the rules were arbitrary and stupid, because we won’t be fooled again, etc.
BTW no one is paying attention to this. No, I mean, seriously. There are signs that this is a massive movement, perhaps as massive as “the expansion west.” I am more aware of it than most, because we’ve been looking for a landing place (Found one. Why I forgot to post last Wednesday. Or rather, I forgot it was Wednesday) from teeny tiny to medium sized towns in another state. And holy heck, the tiny towns are increasing in price at a rate that dwarves even where we are. And btw the locals have no clue what to make of it.
One of the symptoms of this, btw, is that thrift stores are being bombarded with donations. To the point that going to the local Goodwill to donate will take us an hour, because we have to count on staying in line. And re-selling used furniture is almost impossible. Heck, giving it away for free has become difficult.
I read a baffled article on this that attributed what’s happening to…. Marie Kondo. Because they think the trend to simplify is “in the air” and causing people to dump out their lives.
You know that, that’s like trad pub attributing writers’ desire to go indie to us not wanting to get copy-edited. Which is mental, but they tried.
Marie Kondo was a) always a bit of a figure of fun, and only adopted by very young people looking for simple solutions to life. b) is now a meme. It’s that old. No, no one is taking her seriously, if indeed they ever did.
What we’re doing is moving, many of us unexpectedly — because we never though we’d have the chance to — at the last minute, and perhaps not as flush in the pocket as we’d like to be, which means that we’re dumping a lot of things that are sitting around the nooks and cranies of the house, and for which we find no use. Or if you prefer, we’re discarding bits of our identity, some of which frankly is useless or silly after 2020 (I bet they have ton of nice “work” clothes on those thrift store racks.) Or stuff we were going to get around to refinishing, really, but now won’t have time before moving, and don’t want to carry. Or– well, in our case, unless it’s a piece we love, we’re discarding all the “fake wood” because it’s — by and large — HEAVY. We’re retaining the modular, small, easily assembled, because it’s lighter and easier to cram into a small U-haul. I doubt our decisions are that strange.
Anyway we find ourselves on the verge of a new identity. I find it funny when people ask if we have children (meaning if children will be living in the new place) to answer “no.” But we don’t. So…. this will be a household of adults with cats, one of whom would like to garden again, because these last two houses nothing grew, and both of whom work from home, often crazy hours because we have no logical stopping points.
We’ll also be forming new routines: what we do for fun, where we go on weekends/date nights, where we shop for certain things, whom we call on when in trouble, and where we have writing weekends. It will take a year or two probably for it to feel quite comfortable.
But the weird thing is to see other people doing it along with us. Like the entire country is in flux. At least in our friends’ groups the only ones not totally altering their lives are the ones who did it early (waves at tiny town Texas) to beat the rush.
I don’t think anyone knows where the music stops. Or what it means after. Like the country itself is going through a massive identity crisis, which is dangerous, in countries.
Look, we put our characters through this all the time. And you know why: because we force them to change and grow.
It’s not a lot of fun to go through it.
It’s easier, honestly, to form and discard cartoon identities. To crawl into a can, so to put it and convince ourselves that’s who we are.
But it’s also less flexible and it prevents us from coming out bigger, better and shinier.
Of course, soft shell crabs are also easy prey for birds and humans.
So pardon me while I find a place of shelter till the shell hardens. Because the transformation I wish for is not to be fried in butter.