Friday, May 27, 2016
Who we think we are
When somebody stood up and offered me a seat on the bus a few years ago, it was a huge shock. Me? Why? In my mind, I was a vigorous middle-aged person who walked 90 minutes to work each day with a heavy backpack. Obviously my benefactor saw me quite differently -- I was an older person who could use a seat. I thought of the incident in a recent "Understanding Identities in the 21st Century" class I am taking as part of Simon Fraser University's continuing education program (filled with old people like me). The course examines how identities work -- we all define ourselves, but we are also constantly defined by the society around us. We can be defined as belonging to many overlapping groups -- as parents, as employees, as people of a certain heritage -- with many of those categories changing as our lives move along. Our self-identity changes too -- we are affected by our connections and our experiences, such as, for me, the bus incident. It brought me smack up against what I saw as society's sudden and very premature leap toward defining me as old, shattering my idea that I was still in the "middle." It has taken awhile -- more and more white hair, retirement, the first old-age pension cheque -- for me to bring my idea of myself closer into line with society's. Which raises another point: In my mind anyway, old is not a category especially to be desired. Jobs end, clerks start calling you "dear," health fails and the end looms large. It's not like we have any choice, but it gives us a taste, perhaps, of what those who have been shoved into negative categories all their lives -- such as African-Americans and Canadian First Nations -- have experienced. Maybe, for those of us who have led charmed Caucasian lives, that's not such a bad thing.