Being who you are

If you were once an important person, it is hard to give it up. I already knew that. I live in a Senior Center [1] where I see people struggling with it every day. For example, I see people who used to be doctors and who treat their fellow residents as patients; I see people who used to be executives and who treat their fellow residents as department managers. On the other hand, I see former doctors and former executives who seem to have escaped that trap entirely.  They are amazing.

IU2B 1And it’s not just important people either. We are all marked, one way or another, by what we did before we came here. One guy I know used to be a teacher and his perpetual liability is treating his fellow residents as if they were his students. [2]

The trick for all these people —both the ones who have already mastered it and the ones who are still puzzled by it—is to be who they are now instead of who they used to be. The trick is to be the very best version of the people we are now.

I know that can be made to sound easy, but if you think about it, you know it is not. In the first place, it requires that you understand who you now are and then you have to develop standards appropriate to that self.

I have three versions of this problem in mind. They are all, as I have constructed the model,[3] the same problem and so each has the same solution. They just look different.

I used to be important (IU2bI)

The doctors and business executives I referred to above are instances of the first version and there are a lot more examples where those came from. There are some very accomplished people here. They were important people; they took on the challenges that important people take on, the paid the price that important people pay, and they reaped the rewards important people earn. Now they are here and they aren’t important in that way any more. The challenges and the rewards here are entirely different.

They can choose, if they want, to keep the old self-image and the old standards for ' He's not taking to his retirement easily.'judging their behavior and conclude in all fairness, that they are has-beens. That is a sobering conclusion, certainly, and people react differently to it. Some respond with depression and despair; some aggressively market to their present companions how important they used to be. And then there are those people who succeed here as naturally as they succeeded there.

For those who are still coming to terms with their former importance, I have good news. There is a solution.

I used to be unimportant (IU2bU)

I also see people here who have never been thought to be important by anyone outside their families. They are people—women, mostly, but a surprising number of men—who tidied up the physical and social worlds that the Important Person (IP) in the family kept messing up. The IP did the things that had to be done, of course, but the Unimportant Person (UP) kept track of the schedules and kept on good terms with the pharmacy and cooked the meals and kept the house orderly and “balanced the checkbook.” [4]

Here where they live now, there are opportunities to make important contributions to the general welfare just by continuing to be good at what they have always been good at. But if they do those things here, they run the risk of becoming a really important person and that would feel unfamiliar.

There is a solution to that version of the problem too.

I Used to Have a Cause (IU2HAC)

Demonstration against G8 Summit in Le HavreThe third version of the problem looks different in a lot of ways, but it is essentially like the others. There are people here who at considerable cost to themselves, have served the needs of others all their adult lives. Had they been killed in the process of doing that, the media would have called them martyrs and many of their friends actually were  killed or wounded. But these people, now friends of mine, survived and now they are here. The daily challenge, which was once just to continue to live [5] is now how to contribute meaningfully. The daring and dangerous business of providing help to people who desperately need it is yesterday’s business. Today’s business has none of that spice at all and it can taste pretty bland.

There is a solution, of course, and I think you will agree that it sounds familiar.


I have said that all three of those dilemmas are versions of the same problem. The solution is to know who you are now and to value that person and to put it to work for you. [6]

So the IU2bI problem is solved by realizing that you are not “important” in the same way you were. That doesn’t mean you aren’t important. When you complete the first step of this journey, which is assessing who you are NOW, you can move on to deploying the resources you have to make a significant contribution HERE. This will require, it turns out, all the skills you used to have and some new ones as well.

It will require assessing the situation accurately, deploying your resources to achieve your new goals, measuring the results carefully, and adapting your strategy as required. That is just what you used to do and you were good at it; now you get to continue being good at it. The result here is that you will make a substantial contribution to the life of the Center where you live.

The IU2bU problem works the same way. You now live in a place where the job of tidying up relationships is crucially important—not peripheral—and your skills make you among the most accomplished and promising residents at the Center.

While the important things were being done by the Important Person—enemies kept at IU2b 8bay, security established at home, the power structure stabilized, adequate resources supplied for the family [7]—you were providing nurture to those in need of it, sociability to those who could share it, and conflict resolution for those whose resources had run out. So…guess what. It turns out that in a CCRC, the Important Person (IP) functions are pretty much taken care of by the management. The others—the traditional skills of Unimportant People (UPs)—are the ones that are most important in this new setting and the most valuable people are the people who are good at those skills.

That is all good news for us, the other residents. But if the UPs have cultivated a view of themselves as unimportant, they may not see the new opportunities at all and may be wary of stepping forward confidently to claim them. They have, after all, never done that before.

The case of the people who have given their lives to a cause is a little different, particularly if the cause was extraordinarily difficult or dangerous (D&D) [9]. These residents may not ever have reflected on themselves at all. They are much more interested in whether what they are doing is effective or ineffective. They reflect on themselves only indirectly (is it working?) and by means of their vocation  (is it what I am called to do?).

The issue they face here is that nothing here where we live is difficult and dangerous—at least not in the traditional sense. And if you have defined “real” and “important” in terms of how difficult and dangerous the work is, you will be compelled very quickly to admit that in living here, you have left “the real world”(RW) and that this world feels more like a virtual world (VR) of some kind, where your choices don’t really matter much.

If you are used to a project focus and especially if the project is difficult and dangerous, what will you do here where nothing is difficult and dangerous?[10] You can retreat into yourself, since “it doesn’t matter anyway.” That way you get to keep your definition of what is important even if it forces you to recognize that you, yourself, are not. Or you can criticize everyone else for being satisfied with this pale imitation of RW. That helps you keep your old definition in place, but that is about all it does.  And it hurts people.

Or you can find the things that need to be done here. That’s the hard choice. It means remembering that although you got hooked on “difficult and dangerous” out there, that wasn’t what made them important. It was the task itself was important, and difficulty and danger was just the price you paid. Who knew you were going to get addicted to them the way some people get addicted to cocaine or amphetamines? What makes this choice so hard, is that you need to get clean and sober first. The reliance on danger as a stimulant doesn’t work any more. Then you can notice that there are, in fact, things you may be called to do here . If those things are here and if they are your work, you are not free to reject them on the grounds that they are not D&D. That’s why it is the hard choice.


I called all three of these “versions” of the same problem and I stayed true to that idea by providing only one solution. The answer for the formerly IP and the formerly UP and the formerly cause-activated person is all the same. Be who you are now. Let go of the definitions of importance (high and low) and of significance that were required before. That was then; this is now. Take on wholeheartedly the tasks that are here to do and that you are uniquely prepared to do well.

It is in that way, and in no other way, that you can really be who you used to be.

[1] Full disclosure. I live in a CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Center) in Portland, Oregon. It is a very good CCRC and it is chosen more by people who want to be here than by people who have to be here. That makes a difference in how many of which kinds of dilemmas I see.
[2] I have hope for all of them. Maybe a little less for the former teacher, who is, of course, me.
[3] Hence, “versions”
[4] I chose the old phrasing and put it is quotation marks because I want you to think of the old and typical function.
[5] To “not get dead,” as they put that achievement in the movie, Speed.
[6] That last part—to put it to work for you—isn’t a necessary part of the solution for everyone. It is for me. There are some people for whom just “being” who they are works perfectly well and “doing” the things that would confirm that person are not necessary.
[7] Not that those aren’t important, but I pulled the list from the functions performed by the male chimpanzees living in a tribe in the wild.
[8] Keeping the plural—“styles”—to remind us all that there are many ways of playing Alpha and Beta.
[9] Not an idle designation. If D&D calls Dungeons and Dragons to your mind, it will have done its job because if you know that Dungeons and Dragons is called D&D, then you know people who are addicted to D&D and that is just what I want to talk about.
[10] There is an alteration of “realities” here that is very much like the difference between virtual reality (VR) and “the real world” (RW) as Steve Piecznik describes in in Tom Clancy’s Net Force. Here is an example: “When he (Tyrone) shoved his World War I aviator goggles up on his forehead, the VR band also went up in RW and all of a sudden he was back in his room. He blinked. RW always looked so…pale compared to VR.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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