For a number of years in my late twenties and early thirties, if I didn’t have a long, skinny, brown More cigarette between my lips or fingers, I was nonetheless enveloped in a malodorous, smoky haze that I am sure inspired a particular young man looking for a match. “Are you a smoker?” he asked. Taken aback by the question, I shook my head vigorously. Instead, I responded, “I smoke, but I am not a smoker.”
That episode was my first and perhaps clearest encounter with the boxes in which people imprison themselves—or let others imprison them—by their cavalier use of the verb to be. A more significant and long-term association with that peculiar self-limiting linguistic usage occurred during my employment as a disability examiner for Social Security. Of course, my claimants had a significant financial stake in the process, but I was always a little disheartened by the insistence, “I am disabled.” Once, I almost wept as I deciphered the lower-case scrawl of one woman: “I am disability.” It began to seem that these people wore their disabling conditions as badges of honor in their insistence on being nothing else but a disease or an illness or some other limiting condition: I am diabetic. I am a cancer patient. I am ADHD. I am physically and mentally ill. That’s who I am. Concurrently, I began to notice people who identified themselves by what they did at night under the covers and said, “I am L [or G or B, later T or Q].”
Instead of fighting labels as those on the left once did, everyone now seems to be celebrating the very labels that divide us into warring factions. This insidious form of mistaken I[am]dentity is everywhere. At least a third of my female students write in their introductory papers, “I am a single mom.” Wouldn’t it be healthier and more empowering to use an action verb instead? “I have a three-year-old son.” Or how about “My three-year-old son and I live in Fuquay-Varina with two cats and a dog”? I have also seen the following:
I am a substance abuser.
I am a victim of domestic abuse.
I am an addict.
I am special needs.
I am a 90-percent disabled veteran.
I am a registered sex offender.
I realize that some of these boxes people put themselves into are encouraged as a form of owning their limitations. But in the process, they are placing themselves into a narrow box–a prison of their own definitions.
This train of thought has led me to realize that I hardly ever use the phrase “I am” when identifying myself. Yes, I might say that I am tired or angry or something else temporary. But otherwise, I shy away from such pronouncements. I don’t like for people to wish me a happy Mother’s Day because I am neither a mother nor a grandmother. Even though I love to write and play music and take pictures, I would never say that I am writer, a musician, nor a photographer because I am unwilling to use those honorifics in reference to myself.
It has been quite a journey of self-discovery to examine the words with which I am willing to identify myself. I will now willingly say, “I am a teacher”—but, strangely, only since being hired full-time and getting an office of my own; as an adjunct instructor, calling myself a teacher then, I would have felt like a poseur. I also gladly say, “I am an Episcopalian.” The Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican liturgical seasons fit right into my life when I discovered them in 1996, and I knew I was home. Much less willingly and gladly, I say, “I am fat” and “I am sixty-three.”
Otherwise, I would rather express myself in action verbs. I read, I write, I take pictures, I want, I need, I love.