As I teach and meet people soon after they have had a stroke, I see so many grappling with the question “Who am I now?” It’s not an easy question. So much has changed in so short a period of time. But it’s question worth asking.
“Who am I now?” could be a question of religious beliefs and those beliefs can and do have powerful effects in life challenging experiences. That’s not the question I mean. What I mean is the question that asks how we have shaped our lives and how we will shape our lives from here.
We are always moving, always changing. We are, after all, fluid, mostly water. And yet we are held in a form, a shape. Held inside our skins. Held in this ever-changing body shape by our bones and muscles. We move in this shape and we use it to make our lives. It’s how we know ourselves. We hold our shape and we are protective of it. We make the shapes of objects to fit within to hold us. We build houses. We make furniture, cars, office buildings, airplanes, boats, tunnels, bridges, clothes, armor of all kinds.
We make the shapes of relationships and roles to hold us: families, friends, work mates, religious organizations, social connections, political parties, neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, countries. We make the shapes of careers and activities to hold us. We make abstract shapes to hold us: electronic networks, action games, movies, books, music, stories of shapes.
Shapes within shapes, building our lives, one shape after another.
One of the most frightening things about a stroke is the drastic way it changes our shapes – our bodies, our use of objects, our activities, our roles, our relationships, our ability to interact with abstract forms. Stroke suddenly changes the shape of our lives.
On the surface I may look more or less the same from the day before the stroke to the day after. Maybe my face droops on one side, but it’s still the shape of my face, not yours. I have the limbs I had before the stroke. They may not voluntarily move, but they are there. But the shape of who I am and how I know myself and the shape of my life as I have constructed it are profoundly altered. There is so much that we experience as lost. And we are desperate to get it back.
I know that in my encouraging our opening to the question “Who am I now?” I am suggesting that it’s possible to be willing to be with the pain of these losses. I know I am suggesting that we find the strength to know ourselves naked in the face of the world we thought we knew – without our carefully constructed forms. I know this is hard.
I see the people I teach looking at this question. Some open to the question, “Who am I now?” Some do not, and turn away and do their dead level best to try to hold rigidly to the ideas of the form they lost. Holding on and squeezing, trying to stop inevitable change, we become ever more rigid and therefore fragile, vulnerable, subject to being broken. We are injured enough. Opening to the question, however difficult it may be, lets us be supple, stronger, more flexible under pressure.
I didn’t like this question at all when I had my strokes. I was afraid I had lost not only the shapes of my life, I was afraid I had lost myself. And I did not want to ask “Who am I now?” When I finally faced my fear and slowly explored the question, I began to discover that even without my customary shapes, I was still present. My face was drooping but it was still my face.
Stroke is not something we can ignore. Stroke is not trivial. We don’t forget it. No matter how much functional recovery we experience the truth of our strokes stays with us. We live with this truth and, if we address the hard questions, we live through those questions with growing strength and flexibility. That strength and flexibility then fuel our recoveries.
Opening to the question “Who am I now?” allow us to build trust in ourselves. We build trust when we see that we are still here. We build trust when see that we are fluid and are always changing and making new shapes. We build trust when we realize that we can take this fluidity and all we have learned and done in our lives up to this moment and with these things continue to build the shapes of rich and satisfying lives.