There are thirty-plus people crammed into a single room, sitting on couches, or standing, shoulders touching, sweating and sticky in the Florida heat. Packets of paper are passed around the room — a test — and I feel like I am in high school again.
I’m nervous and itchy, the backs of my legs sticking to my chair, and strands of my long hair are clinging to the back of my neck.
It isn’t a history test, or a spelling test, and I’m not being graded. It’s a gifts test, and the outcome is intended to direct me, not to rate me. Still, I feel just as stressed as if you asked me to regurgitate the Periodic Table of Elements.
When the packet arrives to me, I instinctively scan the length of the front page.
“I thrive in a challenge-based environment.”
“I enjoy influencing and inspiring people.”
“I thrive in consistent environments rather than changing ones.”
I’m trying to think clearly, to figure out how I should rate these statements on a scale from 1 to 5, but suddenly I feel my blood pressure rise, and my pulse begin to race. What if I don’t know the answers to these questions? I wonder to myself. What if I think I know, but I’m confused or deluded about myself?
What if I answer, and I get it wrong?
A year ago, I “knew myself” really well. In fact, growing up with a psychologist for a father, and in a part of the country that values self-awareness and individuality, I spent a good deal of time thinking about my personality and temperament.
I had a really strong understanding (or at least I thought I did) of what I was good at, what I was about, what I liked, and what I didn’t.
But recently, something is different.
I’m uncertain, confused.
Maybe it was the speed at which my life changed — getting married, moving across the country, losing most of what used to constitute my identity — that reached it’s long spoon into the jug of my life and stirred and swirled until I was left spinning.
Maybe it was the stress — planting a new church, starting a new job, grieving the loss of family and friends, working to build a healthy and loving marriage…
Either way, this new season has shown me a new side of myself.
I am weaker than I thought I was.
I am more fearful of new things, of change, of failing.
I struggle to make clear decisions for myself, let alone lead others.
Some days I even struggle to find my “voice” to write.
The things I used to “know” about myself, some days, don’t seem to be true anymore. Maybe they are true, and I just need to rediscover them, or maybe they were never true and I need to let them go.
But the question remains: How am I supposed to know?
How do I know what is true about myself, and what is not, especially when the “truth” seems so influenced by my surroundings? If what I know about myself is based on the opinion and perspective of others, how can I know that what they say/think is reliable?
And most importantly, am I still supposed to be asking these things at 29 years old?
The process of discovery is, in some ways, liberating. Think of it sorting through the stuff in your house before a big move, choosing what to keep and what to give away, taking the car full of boxes to Goodwill, dropping them off, dusting off your hands. It’s stuff you didn’t want and never used, anyway.
Clearing out the old stuff opens up space for something new.
It’s also disorienting, at times, because, just like I discovered when I moved my belongings all the way across the country, I can’t bring everything with me that I wanted to. It wouldn’t be practical or even helpful.
I have to let go in order to grab onto something new.
In fact, come to think of it, packing (un-packing, re-packing) offers a really good analogy for this process of self discovery. You don’t just pack once in your life. You pack several times, each time you go on a trip or move somewhere new.
If you never travel, you never have to pack (many people choose to live their lives this way, and if they do, they never have to pack, un-pack, or re-pack).
But no one brags that, each time they take a trip, they bring more crap with them.
It seems like more you travel, the quicker you learn that less is more.
So that’s what I’m learning, I guess, is that weather you’re seventeen, or seventy, packing is part of the process. It’s okay. You don’t have to know exactly who you are, what you’re about, what you’re “going to do.”
Each season of life brings with it new challenges and expectations, and you need different luggage for each different trip.
Swimsuit for the beach.
Parka for the snow.
Boots to climb the mountain.
[photo: Ashley Santiago]