The no one between two someones

“So, what do you do?”

A question that stimulates a rich mix of emotions in me, none of them positive. In my head I can describe what I get up to on a day to day basis in an impressively eloquent way.  But when the words come out of my mouth they nearly always feel dissatisfying.  Both to me and to the person asking.

I’ve taken to explaining what I’m interested in and what I am currently doing (rather than what I do) as an attempt to express something that is more of a live-work-in-progress. But that simply seems to confuse even more.  And I must admit to being a bit of a hypocrite here.  I’m just as guilty of sometimes feeling dissatisfied when others can’t easily label themselves for my own convenience!

I imagine children and teenagers have comparable experiences when asked “So what do you want to be when you grow up?”  My 10 year old daughter can easily describe what she loves and what she is passionate about but experiences similar feelings when well intentioned adults imply that the lack of an aspirational job title is something that needs fixing in the near future.  I still remember a particularly demotivating and somewhat shaming experience when, in my early teens, a career advisor told my parents that I lacked focus and direction because I couldn’t explain to him what I wanted to do.  It seems that being able to describe ourselves, in a way that other people can easily understand, equates to evidence that we are a functioning, go-getting, “sorted” human being.

J. Krishnamurthi offers a contrary perspective in “Freedom from the known.”   He suggest that “The moment we want to be something, we are no longer free.”  The moment I strive to attain a specific version of myself, I become constrained by the parameters of my ambition.  The moment I become attached to my ‘brand’ is the moment I become less pliable and less open to exploring difference.  The shadow side of having a strong sense of self, or a clear and focussed ambition, is that I am in danger of becoming a walking confirmation bias, seeking and experiencing only that which corroborates.

Yet we generally accept that it is sound advice to better define ourselves, our brand, our work, our purpose.  I’m stating to wonder if maybe we are better off letting go of the idea that this is a universally positive thing.  Or to a least hold the labels we do crave a little more lightly.  For it to be OK to simply show up and interact with each other as we are.  To embrace the difficulty in describing ourselves as evidence that we are always the unfinished article, fully alive and ever changing.  For the lack of a convenient label to be an invitation to become deeply curious about the unfathomable uniqueness of the other.  To me this feels like a far more creative way of being.

How would it be to fully embrace the liberating space between who we perceive we have been and who we are yet to become?  To better love and appreciate the imperfect no one in between two someones?

My friend Charlotte Sills recently told me that a favourite phrase of her late supervisor, existential psychoanalyst and author Hans Cohn, was “labelling is the last thing we do when we make jam.”  Seems like good advice for life.

The painting at the top of this blog is “no one in between two someones” by @stevexoh
  1. Steve –

    This has helped me become that much more comfortable with my own inability to conveniently label what I think I do. And I love your language: “unfathomable uniqueness of the other” and “imperfect no one”.

  2. Sleepless says:

    Love the Jam analogy will be stealing that one.

    So to work with the metaphor: The jam does need a label (otherwise it might be beetroot pickle and that is NOT good when you put it on a crumpet) – the label is useful for others (not the jam it self) so when others ask “what do you do?” (aka whats your label) it feels rude, and rather off putting, to read the ingredients list of the Jam or made some obtuse statement about the Jams current state of being… maybe it is OK to know that the Jam has lots of labels and by picking out one i don’t make the others disappear?

    wow did i manage to over work that metaphor or what… i think my label today is “important things to do that i am avoiding”


    1. Nick says:

      That seems like a very good use of the jam analogy: yes, the jam needs a label – because that’s helpful to other people, who have basic questions like ‘can I have this on toast?’ ‘will this work in a cake?’ and ‘is this a mistake and should i actually find the beetroot?’.

      The idea that your label is *helpful to others* is worthwhile, I think. Just as when we ask each other ‘how was your journey?’ or ‘isn’t the weather terrible?’ we’re really giving each other small, safe, offers. So when we ask each other ‘what do you do’ we’re really just saying ‘help me understand you a bit better’. We can answer it without feeling like we’re reducing ourselves or boxing ourselves in.

      (Mind you, I often say I’m a deep sea diver.)

      1. Steve Chapman says:

        Thanks for the comments Nick/Kate. For me, the Jam analogy points towards the idea that the jam is labelled at the point when it permanently becomes what we commonly agree is “Jam” (assuming it’s not left to degrade over time into some mouldy fruit mush) Yes, labels can be helpful to others, the challenge comes when they become fixed or we hear a label and make all sorts of assumptions about the ingredients. I guess, like jam, our labels do become fixed eventually in the form of a headstone or obituary (a nice festive thought!)

  3. Charlotte says:

    Hi all, Hans said that to me in supervision (of psychotherapy) and I think he meant that we only put a label on the jam at the very end of the process: after we have chopped and boiled and and sieved and tinkered, we finally pour it into the jar, let it cool, but the lid on …. and then put the label. (It was a warning to me not to jump to conclusions and assume I know what something is about before really inquiring into it.) As you say Steve, only when it has become the ‘commonly agreed’ thing is it named – although I love the idea of it continuing to grow, degrade and change simply by being in the universe. Who wants to be ‘commonly agreed’?

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