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Names have power. The name you use to address someone defines your relationship with them. It can make the difference between an acquaintance and a friend. It can make the difference between a superior and a co-worker. A name is only a sequence of sounds that we arbitrarily use to identify an individual person, and yet names are so significant that they can cause happiness or offense, acceptance, or ostracization. That the names we use define our relationships with others is a painfully obvious idea with painfully complicated implications.
What do you call yourself?
A “relationship” refers to a connection between separate entities, so we usually use it to refer to the countless people in our lives. But the most important relationship any of us will ever have is with ourselves, or to be more precise with the definition, the relationship between who we are and how we perceive ourselves, between, roughly, our bodies and minds.
Everyone we meet will inevitably leave us — that is, everyone except ourselves. I’ve written about the transience of relationships, but the one relationship that will never end is our relationship with ourselves, and that’s what makes it so important to maintain. We are the only constant we have.
Unfortunately, I often don’t like myself very much — and even more unfortunately, I’m willing to bet that I’m not nearly alone in feeling this way, especially at a place like Harvard.
This conflict between who I am as a person and how I perceive myself manifests in many ways, but I notice it most often in relation to my physical appearance. I hate looking into the mirror; a generous helping of internalized ableism with a side of gender dysphoria will do that. Likewise, I feel repelled looking at photos of myself, and whenever I pull up group photos that include me, I mentally Photoshop myself out. I do whatever I can to run away from my appearance and myself more generally, scared to face and confront who I really am. A censored self-image remains frozen and unchanging in my mind, and I find it hard to let go.
For my birthday this year, my friend drew a picture of me with text reading “happy birthday” in Japanese. In the drawing, I appeared happy, and it struck me: for the first time I could remember, I liked looking at myself. They drew my walker and the scar where my tracheostomy used to be, and I still felt proud looking at myself. Granted, the cartoonish style hid my unusual facial features, but all the same, it was me. I texted my friend, “I wonder if that me in the drawing is really how I am in real life.”
They replied, “It is :) But IRL is better.”
Their art supported me in my insecure relationship with myself, providing a perspective that I’d previously blinded myself to and showing me my smile which I’d run away from. But ultimately, the only ones who can fix our own relationships with ourselves are ourselves. External validation amounts to nothing if we can’t first support ourselves, acknowledge our fears, and accept ourselves as we are; no matter the help, no one can fill a vessel with no bottom.
And currently, my vessel has no bottom. It’s cracked and broken; attempts to accept and appreciate myself as I change fall through. Yet the fact that my vessel is broken is itself a reason to appreciate it, because those cracks have made me who I am now.
The Japanese restoration technique kintsugi, in which metal and lacquer are used to repair broken ceramics, symbolizes a philosophy that emphasizes change as part of the whole. By visibly highlighting cracks on a ceramic item with gold, kintsugi challenges the idea that recovery means erasing hardships, and instead openly celebrates change. I feel like that’s how I want my relationship with myself to be, someday.
I want to learn to stop fighting to preserve who I used to be. When I transitioned from high school to college, I refused to let my identity move on for a long time, because high school was what I knew and I didn’t want my old self to disappear. But it never truly disappeared, and by letting myself go, I found myself again.
I want to learn to accept my harmful relationship with myself while acknowledging that I’m working to improve it. Denying how my problems contribute to who I am only prevents me from solving them. And I want to learn to move on from my imagined reality where I never change, where I face no obstacles.
Unfortunately, I don’t yet know how to do any of that. What I do know is that names define relationships, and when we call ourselves “stupid” or “ugly” or “useless,” those self-insults reinforce themselves. But if I call myself Ben — the sequence of sounds arbitrarily used to represent my existence — then that’s who I am. It hurts, because that existence contains much that I wish I could change, but those difficulties are who I am, too. And by perceiving myself as I am, all the cracks from challenges and growing that have made me who I am today, I can live for the present.
I mentioned that the “happy birthday” on the drawing was written in Japanese, but actually, because one kanji was missing, it read “happy birth.” Yet, that seems more fitting: “Happy birth — you’ve come so far. You’ve changed so much to get here, and even though you hoped the nights were eternal so that the days wouldn’t pass, even though the cracks hurt, the fact that you’ve become who you are is a miracle.”
And so dawn comes, and the days pass. And in their light, I want to choose to look ahead and to see my own smile on my own face. It’s a smile that says, “Through the good and the bad, I’ll always be there for myself, whoever I was, am, and will be.”
Ben T. Elwy ’23 lives in Quincy House. Their column, “The Smiles We Choose,” appears on alternating Thursdays.
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