MQ-3: I Am What I Do (‘Mythquake’ series)

More on the Mythquake book-project. This is a book that I’ve been brewing for perhaps a decade, but accept that I will probably never have time to write, so I’m placing these ideas up in the blogosphere in the hope that someone else will pick ’em up and run with them.

The previous chapter, ‘MQ-2: The Centre of the Universe‘, we looked at some relatively-minor everyday mythquakes whose impact is usually localised and transitory – such as a two-year-old’s temper-tantrum at broken expectations, and the perhaps even more bizarre emotion associated with expectations around competitive sports. But here we move up into territory where the mythquakes are rather more noticeable, becoming less localised, with impacts that are less transitory and often quite a bit more severe. This levels seems typified by a whole class of mythquakes that can arise whenever we confuse “who I am” with “what I do”.

This chapter contains the following sections [all notes-only]:

  • Doing life
  • The end of the world

Book-development notes are shown in italics inside square-brackets, [like this]. Further commentary on the development-notes is in ordinary type inside curly-braces, {like this}.

MQ-3: I am what I do

Richter 3: Minor earthquake. Often felt but rarely causes damage. Equivalent to around thirty tonnes of TNT (largest conventional bombs). Around one to two hundred per day.

Mercalli III: Shaking felt indoors, though often not outdoors; hanging objects swing back and forth.

Doing life

[Dangers of this story – if I identify myself with what I do, life ceases to exist when I lose what I do; affects both genders, traditionally in different ways – retirement vs empty-nest syndrome – but these days lines are much more blurred.]

{It’s very common for people to identify with their work: “I am a carpenter”, “I am a programmer”, rather than “I work as a carpenter”, “I do computer-programming as part of my paid-work”. The danger here is that if we identify too strongly with the task, the sense of self can be lost when the task ends. This can lead to a kind of multiple-personality-syndrome, with rigid compartmentalisation between different aspects of one’s life – often providing strong mythquakes if we meet work-colleagues when on vacation, for example, or old college-buddies at a family event. This can be particularly difficult when “I am” refers to both a task and a status: “I am a parent” applies both to the status of ‘parent’ and the tasks of parenting. Up until, a few decades ago, the identification with work – “I am a carpenter” etc – mainly affected men, whereas the parent-role confusion mainly applied to women as mothers; these distinctions have become much more blurred in recent decades as biologically-determined boundaries between roles have lessened as a social driver. In both cases, though, any over-identification leads to a tendency to cling on to the role well beyond the point at which it actually applies – such as in the ’empty-nest’ syndrome’ – which tends to exacerbate the intensity of the resultant mythquake when that identity necessarily breaks down.}

[Portuguese distinction between estar, ser, ficar, versus English ‘to be’]

{Sometimes the problems can arise from the language itself. Where English has just the one verb “to be” – “I am”, etc – Portuguese has a very useful distinction between estar – a transitory condition of “I” – ser – a permanent attribute of “I” – and ficar – an active attribute of “I” in the sense of “I am doing”, or  somewhat closer to “I make”, “I stay as”, “I remain”.}

The end of the world

[Redundancy or retirement may be literally experienced as ‘the end of the world’; less easily survivable than lower-energy mythquakes, but still a personal story with few effects outside the immediate scope.]

{What makes the mythquake worse is holding on to the identity; conversely, the less attachment we have to any role, the lower the intensity of this kind of mythquake. This can be much harder, though, when the separation is forced from outside, such as in retirement, redundancy or the ’empty-nest’ syndrome when the last child leaves home. And although each mythquake is personal, it’s very much harder when an entire community is hit at once in this way – such as the closure of a major employer in a small town, or the aftermath of a disaster in which many lives – especially children’s lives – have been lost: the Richter-equivalent energy may remain quite small, but the impacts compound on each other to increase the Mercalli-equivalent intensity that is experienced within the wider community.}

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