Well I used to be somebody • Lord I used to have a friend • I’d like to be somebody again • I used to be somebody • Good lord where have I beenJune Carter Cash
The British gymnast Nile Wilson was probably the very best men’s gymnast in the world in early 2018. And then he wasn’t. An injury to his hand took him off some of his equipment, but he kept training and tumbling, until he herniated a spinal disc on a skill he’d done ten thousand times before. In the space of seconds, he went from being one of the strongest, fittest people on the planet to being unable to walk.
And he collapsed. Not merely physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. His entire identity had been lost in an instant. He started drinking, developed an online gambling problem. He alienated family, friends, girlfriends. He had no tools with which to navigate this new world. This new Nile.
How many of us have experienced something like this. Maybe not as dramatic, the ends of the spectrum not as extreme. But for most of us, maybe all of us, there have been times in our lives when the self we were was no longer available to us. Or when we decided that that self was no longer appropriate to us.
My Nile Wilson moment came when it became clear that, although I had done academic work that was highly received and broadly acknowledged, I no longer had a future as an academic. I would never have my own classrooms, my own research agenda. I would have no access to helping young people chart a course through a more expansive world than they might ever have imagined. I would never again have permission to explore a confusing world without the requirement of setting it into immediate order for a client paying expensive billable hours. Everything that I had trained to become—everything that I WAS—was no longer relevant. No longer available.
And rather than go through the full process of grief, I did what a lot of people do without coaching, which was to get stuck at phase 1: denial. This isn’t really happening. I can keep publishing, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted. I can keep working as an academic administrator, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted. I can become a leader in a national pedagogical organization, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted.
I want to be clear about this. This was not the “loss of a career,” something external to me. This was the rupture of self.
When I was a kid, my very first career aspiration was to be a Lutheran pastor. I loved the pastor of our church, thought he was a model for the life I aspired to. And although I ultimately left that church, left that faith altogether, I continued to do that same exact work as an academic. I got to read important texts and deliberate about their meaning. I got to do public speaking, to write an essay every week that would illuminate ideas and their implications. I got to counsel people in need, who sat across from me in the office ostensibly to talk about their writing project but really to unload about their insecurities, about their own fears of failure, of being found to be a fraud. The job title had changed, but the self had not.
So when that “career” was invalidated, when my meter expired and I had to move on, I got a new job, I made a good living, but it was hollow, because there was no desirable self at the center of it.
The sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh conducted hundreds of interviews with people who were going through what she termed “role changes”—a productive term for sociology, I suppose, but a little anodyne and remote for the more fundamental identity changes she’s really describing. She herself had once been a nun, and had left that behind for marriage and family life and graduate school. And through her own experience and the experience of those she interviewed, she determined that there was an important but often missing step in identity change, which she termed “becoming an ex.” She claims that it is vital not merely that we construct the new self, but also that we look squarely at the former self as well, and learn what it means to be an ex-husband, an ex-convict. An ex-president. A widow, an orphan. Post-menopausal. Retired. She believes that without some sense of closure for that former self, it will haunt us like a ghost, appearing without warning and overturning the furniture of our newly constructed home.
Ebaugh talks about a sort of standard continuum for this kind of transitional work, framing it most centrally around the experience of departure from religious communities. While cloistered, one learns not only to dress but also to speak and to walk in a “modest” manner. Upon departure, the ex-nun or ex-brother often first clings closely to the habits they know and understand. They dress conservatively, they continue their quiet and non-assuming ways. But at some point, there often comes a shift far to the opposite end of the extreme: short skirts, taking up smoking, seeking sexual attention. It’s still an expression of loss, of not having come peacefully to terms with the ex-identity, letting the former self define us through its absence, through its rejection. The authentic new self requires a closure, a sort of cauterization, to emerge on its own terms, without being an artifice of what had once been.
As we get older, we accumulate more of those ghost-selves, apparitions who follow us around and speak in voices that only we can hear. We accumulate ex-identities, the selves we once were but can no longer be. And until we can perform the appropriate taxidermy, to mount those former selves on the wall as external facts of pride rather than open wounds, they will continue to torment us.
I don’t pretend to have completed that work, far from it. But I know that I’m doing that work. And you probably are, too. Be strong, and know that there’ll be days when you can’t be.