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April 24, 2011 / missmarymax

Actually, I *Am* a Human Doing: Postmodernism and Recovery

Recently, I wrote about the drive to do (and do perfectly)—and how freeing it can be to let go of that frantic need for achievement.  It’s true that I still overwhelm myself on occasion by overcommitting; I enjoy a busy life and err on the side of overextension.  On a recent “day off” – having run from errand to task to project since opening my eyes that morning, I felt myself starting to break and hurried home to rest.  It occurred to me that I was avoiding the state of rest, and one of those old recovery stand-bys popped again to the forefront of my brain:

I am a human being, not a human doing.

This quote has served me well at times.  It’s been a reminder that I can stop, breathe, even waste time without committing some moral crime.  On the most recent afternoon, however it elicited a new added wave of panic: who is this human that I am, all my doing stripped away?  Do I know myself?  How do I identify my identity, if not through what I do?

This question is part post-college, twenty-something existential crisis and part residual fear about not measuring up.  But it extends beyond both, into what—I finally realized—is actually a pretty reasonable critique of this old recovery tenet.

Here’s the thing: I define myself, primarily, through roles.  Student, sister, aunt, friend, activist…these are the relationships and pursuits that define me.  And by and large, the pride I take is in how I function in these roles.  You could argue, of course, that I would still be a sister, if I quit exchanging sardonic commentary with Sarah via text, that I’d still be an aunt if I quit kissing on my nephew and niece.  You might even argue that I’ve remained a student (or at least a geek) after graduating, remained an activist even while failing to execute a single revolt.  Maybe, you figure, there’s something inherent in me that leads me to think like a student and activist, but thinking, responding—these are still actions.  Hell, to go further: so are resting and stopping and letting it go.

If I embrace the extent to which I am shamelessly overthinking this (see tagline above), temporarily abandoning the forest to the trees—I realize that a layer of my recent who-am-I anxiety is the inevitable (if utterly nerdy) clash between recovery’s goal of the human being and my own postmodernist tendencies.  (A tendency I am not alone in.  See tagline at We Bite Back.) I err, often, on the side of a theoretical perspective that does not believe in the inherent, in the core unified self.  That instead argues for social construction, believes gender, race, beauty—even self?—are created through action and interaction.  My anxiety, then, results from the sense that I must strive to be something I don’t believe exists: a “self” not constantly defined through action. A transcendent, inherent self.

The fact that I feel defined by doing does not mean I have no investment in living authentically.  It just redefines “the authentic self” as one whose actions (including thinking and feeling, the doing of thought and emotion) are aligned, a sort of integrity maintained throughout all projects.  Similarly, it doesn’t mean abdicating life to those perfectionist goals.  I can remain committed to balance, to the doing of rest and the doing of self-care, without classifying these actions as inaction.

And really, that may be what people intend when they toss forth this truism.  They certainly don’t intend for me to “do freakout” the way I did on my recent day off.  So do the terms matter?  Does it really make a difference whether we call it “being” or “doing rest?”

Honestly, for many of us, probably not.  If you believe in an essential self, soul, or spirit, then it probably doesn’t harm you or your recovery to think in “human being” and “human doing” terms.  But a lot of the people I know in recovery are doers; we’re geeks and activists and athletes whose most personal connections with (or creations of) self occur through doing.  And it’s important for us to recognize that not all “doing” is perfectionism.  I can do activism, academia, even recovery in crazy, pathological ways—but I can also do them in ways that are balanced, self-defined, and fun.

One of the reasons postmodernism works so well in my recovery is because it fundamentally takes issue with binaries.  It works to dismantle dualities like mind/ body, fat/ thin, good/ bad and all the other black-and-white oppositions that help fuel EDs. Dissecting the doing/being binary leads me back to the core notion of this old stand-by: that who I am is ok, unchanged.  For the essential-self folk, this means I can quit actively trying to prove myself through work because who I am is enough.  For the postmodernist, it means, I trade doing perfectionism, doing self-proof, and doing anxiety, for doing the relationships and projects that bring me energy. I do these things because they bring me energy. I can be and do, and as long as I look after my needs, the difference is minute. 

Maybe, it’s even non-existent.

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