COMMENTARY: What defines you? The very question conjures a flurry of thoughts in even the most modest of people. It’s a cumbersome question for our minds to try to answer, cranking away, as we suddenly must categorize life’s events and the people present, past, and still to come. What we consider the good, the bad, the sad, and the unimaginable. The ability to select one event, person, or time that has shaped who you are and will become is a daunting and, I argue, impossible task.
The response we all too often give is the expected “everything” answer to be certain that nothing big or small is left out. This by nature is generic and void of personality. In a business setting so many of us net out in what I call the “résumé booster,” a careful combination of life, work, and accolades, crafted to tell the story of the defined “Me.”
Then there is the response that includes the opposite — all the things, people, circumstances that we have determined haven’t defined us. Looking back, I recall that for years mine would include the South, my parents’ divorce, and being gay — these were merely circumstances with “minimal impact” that I lived through, so I thought. We seem to think that by playing down these otherwise monumental events or not overcoming their supposed influence, we are some how more sophisticated.
For me, the question has been front and center in part because of the obviously vocal stance I take on having HIV. Most people who still are fearful of disclosing this fact about themselves say, “I don’t want it to define me.” Interestingly enough, the doctors, the blogs, the advice columns, everything urges you not to be defined by the virus. Early on, I remember saying, “It’s what I have, not who I am.” Today, my response is different. No doubt HIV has its place, from résumé to life, its impact unfolding each day. I would argue it’s very much who I am. But this at face value is a less than desirable definition of who I want to be. Or who I want people to think I am.
The reality is, these unfortunate moments don’t translate well to paper but likely define more of who we are than we could ever write down. These life-changing moments affect our decisions at work, with clients, and how we treat others. Even I am guilty still of crafting the answer I want people to know, when the reality of some of my defining moments is less than fortunate.
Aside from HIV, there is one I still struggle to discuss. It was a day in May 2007. I remember what I was wearing; I remember the smell of Eighth Avenue as I ran from work to an apartment just three blocks always. The day a culmination of countless events, motives, feelings, and decisions, drug use, and a relationship gone bad.
On that day I found a former boyfriend of two years who had attempted to commit suicide. The images of an apartment, scattered with pills, a broken plastic knife, plates of crushed drugs, laundry having piled up amid his brightly colored painted walls, are still very clear in my mind. That moment was defining because of the pure emotion wrapped up in seeing someone I cared about in such a sad state. Defining in the long term because suddenly, for the first time in my life, someone I chose to have in my life would change so much about it. Defining not in the superficial sense of the word, because in the years to follow no one even had to know about him, the way our relationship would evolve, or that day. And fortunately for him and everyone, he lived. But personally defining because of how it would change my view on the world and future relationships I would create. Suddenly all I knew about a person I called my best friend, someone I had chosen to love and share time with, would be called into question. I would soon distance myself from all our friends, from the life he had introduced me to. Lies unearthed, addictions revealed, motives confirmed, reasoning and biological tendencies all locked inside what was clearly a troubled mind would suddenly turn my world upside down. What did this say about me? As selfish as it sounds, I was embarrassed and ashamed of a situation and person that went against the definition I wanted others to have of me. What had started as a flirtatious relationship on a beach years before would end in the psychiatric ward of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. This was not what I planned, and so I would work every day to not let that or him or anything associated with it define me. A foolish approach in hindsight, but an approach I would take then, and later that year when I was diagnosed with HIV.
We each can probably recall those life moments that at the time seem like the end of the world. And I suspect many of us shut them away, denying ourselves their influence, denying others the chance to be involved. For years I have not fully owned that day, and I have dismissed that person out of anger, fear, embarrassment, and sadness.
The truth is, that situation and person that led me to that brisk day in May 2007 would teach me so much about the fragility of the human mind. It shaped my approach to future relationships, to trust, and helped redefine my understanding of love. It showed me the power of substance. It forced me to understand the importance of making the choice of when to say goodbye. It defines me, he defines me. The same could be applied to HIV and all that has come with my disclosure. It has made me more compassionate, forced me to be more empathetic, and made me mindful of everything that works against tolerance. Another unfortunate circumstance, but with very fortunate lessons. HIV very much defines me and continues to each day.
Too many times pride and privacy creep in to protect our fragile egos and we fall back on a carefully crafted safety net of politically correct, socially acceptable definitions of who we are and what defines us. These do nothing more than look good on paper. The reality is, we are each human, life gets messy, and mistakes are made. And most of the things we say don’t define us are at the very top of our physiological dictionary, for better or worse.
Just think if we all were a little more candid about what truly defines us — the decisions gone awry, the addiction we just can’t shake, the secrets we fight to hide, the chance we took on love, the mistake we live with every day — perhaps we would better understand the impact our actions have on defining others. After all, we are all at some point part of someone else’s definition. Because as cliché as it sounds, I am finding more every day if you really want to know the answer to “What defines you?” you need to look beyond yourself, to the answers of others.
So each time you choose not to share that unfortunate moment from your past, dismiss that person who doesn’t meet your definition, or hide that unfortunate disease, understand that doing so might just be the missed opportunity to redefine the world around you.