We are not our nots: A response to ‘What I Be’

I am not a lot of things.

I am not naturally outgoing.

I am not the mild case of scoliosis I’ve had since my bat mitzvah.

I am not the cantankerously swollen eyes I get every spring.

I have plenty of reasons to feel imperfect and insecure… but that is not how I choose to define myself.

There has been a wealth of coverage on Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be ProjectMore than a project, it’s a movement — and it intrigues, encourages and includes a large number of individuals, including some of my own friends and colleagues.

I want to like it, I really do, but something about the project rubs me the wrong way — starting with the disjunction between the project’s name and its tagline.

According to Rosenfield, “By stating ‘I am not my_____,’ [the participants] are claiming that they do in fact struggle with these issues, but it does not define who they are as a person.”

I very much identify with not letting what is out of our control define who we are. We all have pimples of some sort — something that can cause other people to view us as damaged goods — but those pimples do not define who we are as human beings. King Solomon states, “The Flame of G-d is mankind’s soul” (Proverbs 20:27). We each house a distinct purpose, set of challenges and strengths, dispositions and areas of improvement. All of those components create a flame – a tangible desire to create and contribute; to live beyond the confines of time, someway, somehow. Sometimes the flame is strong, sometimes we wonder if exists — but as long as we are alive, we have the ability to fan and foster it.

Which leads me to my confusion. If the project exists “to empower those who feel they suffer for something they may see as a flaw,” then why is What I Be’s mission statement, “I am not my _____?” If I am not my flaws, I am more than my flaws. When I let myself “truly be seen” (as Brene Brown would say), I divulge my struggles and vulnerabilities, but I don’t deny that they are a part of who I am. Instead, I validate that I am so much more. Saying “I am not my ____” may be cathartic, because, essentially, it deflects responsibility. Yet as “empowering” as that may feel during its initial exposure, it does inspire or project responsible action. Contrarily, saying “I am more than ____. I am ____” states that, even if I am not responsible for introducing this difficult struggle into my life, I have taken responsibility to develop myself beyond its grasp.

The concept reminds me of a tagline I encountered as a journalism intern. As a patient story writer at a neurosurgical unit, I learned a lot about neurological diseases and disorders, including Parkinson’s Disease (PD). As an avid Family Ties fan, I was aware that Michael J. Fox struggles with the degenerative movement disorder, and has devoted much of his time to fundraising PD research. Oftentimes, when on a PD case, I visited The Michael J. Fox Foundation website to collect data. Around the time I began researching, the foundation had came out with a “Think/able” campaign. The premise is “our challenges don’t define us. Our actions do.” Now that is a tagline that empowers. Everyone has challenges. Everyone has something that they wish wasn’t a part of them. Even so, individuals with PD, their loved ones, and all of us for that matter, are able to take action. Whatever that challenge may be, the actions may not come easy, but in the long run, they will be worth it.

Please forgive me if I misunderstand, but I find it very difficult to engender self-worth if I am a not. My insecurities and imperfections don’t define me, but they sure as heck are a part of who I am, as ugly as they might get at times. I work with them, I work through them but they are still a part of me, even when I wish they weren’t; even when I feel that I am or can be ridiculed for them. Yes, someone stating, “I am more than my emotions; more than my anxiety; more than my confidence,” means that there is more than meets the eye. Such a statement demonstrates that the individuals recognize that, ultimately, they are able to go beyond their insecurities. They think able.

Not letting that which we cannot control define us (i.e. a disorder, condition, tragedy, circumstance, etc.) is something I wholeheartedly support, but there seems to be no distinction between what is in our control and what is not in What I Be. I can empathize with someone who is not their molestation, their family background or another struggle that is beyond control… but for those who say they are not their attitude or their commitments or their decisions, I cannot support. In fact, I will publicly say to those individuals that they are wrong. The day we as a culture believe that we are not our attitude or our commitments or our decisions, we’ll be in big trouble. If the goal here is to empower people, let’s recognize that we are more than their struggles, but we are also responsible to think and act able. And please, don’t take my word for it – take the studies of Dr. Brene Brown and Dr. Tal Ben Shahar. 

I want to know the stories of others. I want to be inspired and energized to be vulnerable (at the appropriate times) and mindful and courageous. But Mr. Rosenfield, if you want to sustain a movement that engenders lasting empowerment, start showing who people are and who they have chosen to be. Despite their imperfections. Despite their insecurities. Despite their pasts. Show me a generation of people who are so much more than a thread of Nots.

About the Author
Eliana is a Bostonian-New Yorker (okay, and a Jersey Girl) who made aliyah from Manhattan's Washington Heights community in July 2016. Ever since then, she's been writing about the wonderfully unpredictable journey of 'living the dream' as a Millennial from the West (note: sense of humor strongly encouraged). She serves as the Alumni Affairs and Special Programs coordinator at Yeshiva University in Israel.