“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I definitely remember all the things that I said about myself for all these years – things that no one imposed on me, but if someone asked me, “tell us something about you”, some words would jump out of my mouth, quickly and precisely.
I believed them. I believed the words.
And it was no surprise that I said those words on repeat – almost like an urgency of being consistent with myself; this basic need to say the truth.
As a reader, you can already see that the number of words I’m using can really support what I’m saying. The more words there are, the greater the probability of you fitting into those words.
Who I am?
The simple reply, which I have realized after years of spiritual and theoretical study about this topic, is: You are what you believe that you are – and probably much more than that.
Let me tell you how I experienced this last year in my own life. Sometimes, intellectual discussions have the opportunity of becoming real and you have this amazing experience testing all your theoretical work in your own life. This is what happened to me – not for the first time, and certainly not for the last.
5 December 2020
Peter, my husband, is sitting at the table eating his breakfast, looking forward to what will be a great day of celebration. Sinterklaas is in town, and this is the evening that we will open presents and be together as a family, smiling and enjoying a great evening. But his hands start becoming “funny” and he is making strange hand movements. He is having visible difficulty keeping his spoon in the position that would be “normal’ to eat his cereal. From my experience I know that this can very easily be an early symptom for a stroke, so we immediately head to the hospital. Peter is crying and I start getting the real sensation that something is going to come and flip my heart.
The tests take time and we start to become patient. The first rush is gone. We wait. Three hours pass and the doctor comes, and takes a breath that you know is for her to handle the impact. (Sometimes it is really hard to know all this non-verbal stuff and be an internal student of people). I hold my breath as well, waiting for the impact:
“We see a big tumor on your brain.”
Our eyes meet and I’m still not breathing. But then Peter smiles and starts asking questions like if they can enter his brain immediately and take that “thing” away. We both know that this is not possible – but we both want it to happen.
After agreeing that we would be back on Monday, we start walking to our car to go back home and tell the kids – or not tell the kids, until we know more. Do we call our parents? Do we scream? My heart starts spinning, and my head is totally frozen. I don’t know how to drive anymore. I start crying like I’m going to die.
Peter picks up the keys and takes us home with the words: “everything will be ok”.
I believed him. And I still do.
The next months are all about chemo, radiotherapy, and hospital visits. And everything is going to be ok. The energy is back in our lives and we are very focused on having love and day-by-day discoveries about all this.
Some days Peter could not see so well, and walking was difficult. Other days, everything was “normal”.
These were days of discovery. We were both changing daily; minute by minute, in fact. And don’t get me wrong: it was not only an emotional change but also a physical change. Our bodies were changing and losing their identity for the last 44, and 48 years.
And this is my proposal for these pages. To explore how identity is not a concept but shapes you, not only in your brain but also in your physical body. From this moment on, I will call it the (body and mind) “system”.
The beginning of identity
I will not enter into the discussion on nature vs nurture. Why not? Because this discussion started around 400 B.C.E., when Hippocrates described human behaviors as being biological, the result of four different body fluid types called humor. And we are still finding “new” theories today. Honestly, I tend to think this is an unnecessary question if we see humans as a system where everything impacts everything.
I will assume that identity starts even before we are born. We receive genetic information and more than that, we also know now: emotions impact the full system and this is also true for the cells that will become embryos and babies.
And yes, family and relatives are also creating a series of labels that define us. The question is whether we believe them or not. Of course, as a child, we tend not to resist a lot of labels, but we all reach an age when we start rejecting some of them. Sometimes, we create the immediate opposite of that, to create our “own Identity” which is nothing much more than the opposite of what was given to us.
And I will say that the context of birth is also creating that first glance of identity. The number of people that I met that have traumas from birth is too big to not believe this.
How identity continues
Identity continues just like we continue – connecting with others, hearing what people say about us and what we believe is true or not. We tend to start building repetition of strategies that begin to be called personality. From my experience as a coach, I usually say that is much more about survival strategies than personality. I can also agree if someone says that personality is just a chain of strategies that we use to survive.
Going back to the experience of Peter and the brain cancer: all the strategies that he normally used were not working for this particular situation. The fast, assertive, strong, and combative person was no longer around. Peter was very clear in saying that he needed to change drastically, as everything he had during his 48 years would not help him now. And from one day to the next he did it. He deleted all the e-mails and disconnected his phone. His speed of living went from 110% to 0%. He told me that there was just one thing he wanted to keep and always remember: “I love you”. And he wrote this in his notebook, just in case his memory tricked him.
It never did. It was almost like that was a part of him that was unteachable. Even if so many parts were being touched by cancer and changing, this part never changed.
Who I am?
It was only after some months that I detected how much I had changed; how different I had become. I had the feeling that this would all continue, and a long-term transformation would be happening.
After the funeral was the moment that my close friends started to reach out and ask me how I was doing what I was doing. They started to get curious if my attitude was from my Dutch acculturation or it was my own vision on death and life.
I could not reply to that question, as I needed some distance to get more sense about what was death and life for Portuguese people and for Dutch people.
Portuguese culture has a heavy funeral protocol; normally the funeral happens for 24 hours, and those hours are for the “velorio”. I cannot even find a proper translation for this in English, but it is the time that the body is there to be seen, and people say prayers. People come and stay together with the family to pay their respects. They bring flowers and lots of tears and also stories. I still remember the smell of that moment of my grandfather’s funeral, more than twenty years ago.
It is a very intense moment because as a family you stay crying for 24 hours and when you think that no more tears can come out, someone new comes and hugs you and says something and you start all over again.
When I attended my first Dutch funeral, I was so happy that none of this “velorio” was happening, but at the same time, I missed something – I think it was the crying together, and the holding in a hug.
I was impressed by having photos at the funeral. The correct word is atonic. In Portugal, a photo at a funeral is only something for the paparazzi and those outside the real funeral.
Peter’s funeral was held in Portugal – a place that he loved and wanted so much to go to.
Two Dutch friends flew over. One of them, who had been Peter’s friend for more than 25 years, held on to my mum, crying, saying “I still didn’t cry with anyone”.
We need to cry too. We hold so much pain. We need to cry our hearts out, right?
I think the ceremony was a beautiful mix of Dutch and Portuguese cultures.
There was lots of music, beautiful stories, and time to hold each other, crying.
I believe that it is in the most remarkable and emotionally charged moments that we detect what really moves us how we deal with it, and where we see our culture and identity most deeply. And after all this, I don’t feel like I live death or mourning as a Portuguese person but I don’t live it as a Dutch person either.
I remember that the biggest discussion with the Dutch doctors was about the notion of quality of life, and we had heated discussions and I felt in such a large process of education. We had doctors who said that if Peter couldn’t talk, what quality of life would he have? I believe this comes from the idea of “independence”. But, for us, having a child that doesn’t speak, it all seemed very surreal. These discussions got even more intense when Peter had to be reanimated in March 2021. The doctor asked me: “what do you want to do?” As if there was any doubt that they should do everything they could to bring my love back to life! I remember I was so frozen I couldn’t even get angry.
I think that in a country where euthanasia is used, it really changes the beliefs about what is worth doing. I feel this on my skin.
I even thought that we were not in the right country for Peter to be treated. I didn’t feel like the doctors were fighting, but more saying” “let’s see” – like they didn’t know if it was worth it. We had to fight in some moments because they wanted to stop the treatment and only continued after firm conversations. Many times, I found myself in the middle of these cultures: the Portuguese way, in which we do everything to save a life, and the Dutch way, in which we should not force life if it implies living without independence and in total clarity.
Many times, I lay down with this feeling that we were not doing everything, but forcing a reality that was maybe Peter’s reality.
What gave me peace was the awareness that I didn’t want Peter for myself, but for him. That this was not my fight and my love was not dependent on the consequences of the illness. It gave me peace to keep asking and questioning the doctors but also to trust that there are things that even doctors can’t control.
I know that many immigrants have this struggle with the Dutch medical system.
In the process, we also found out that there are not many treatment options for brain cancer. With the type of cancer that Peter had, most patients opt for euthanasia and no treatment. That makes me so sad. I don’t know if this would be different if the doctors had a different attitude and different conversations.
The conflict between cultures was very much felt in the communication with the doctors and Peter was also no longer so Dutch anymore. I don’t think either of us was one culture; we had influenced each other and neither of us fitted into one box anymore.
Peter, being certified in Cultural Insights, always had a way of looking at these conversations from a distance and positioning many of his arguments on the children that supported every word the doctors said.
I’m sure we were able to touch on some of those beliefs in a positive way and see that many of the beliefs we held culturally no longer served us. Thinking of a person as a utility who only makes sense if they continue to be useful doesn’t make sense now. The usefulness has gone from being useful to much more spiritual usefulness.
This is a difference that I remember seeing in Portugal, for example between people in rural and urban areas.
In a rural area, a dog is only a good guard dog if it barks at strangers, and if it helps to protect other animals. If this does not happen, the dog is often euthanized. In the city, a dog’s utility is more focused on companionship, presence and not so much on what the animal does or can do.
But one thing that this all did was that when the doctors saw that we wanted to give it a bigger meaning, the support Peter had was incredible. I think that the mindset was: if we are going to do it, we will do it well. We got support from everyone and so much attention and care that sometimes made us cry.
Friends came for walks, doctors called frequently, and the GP, nurses, and therapists came to visit. There was such immense care and so much love that made me think that this would never happen in Portugal.
Because in Portugal, life is to be maintained and not necessarily respected.
But when Peter left, everything stopped.
Only my friends from Portugal still keep regular contact and ask how I am. The question for the Dutch is “how are the children?” as if I have to go on, to submit myself to that obligation. It is as if you, as an adult, can just deal with it.
It is as if the reason no longer exists, and now its time to move on.
When my life is all about carrying on.
What is identity in the end?
Identity is what you believe that you believe in.
What words you use to describe yourself will define you. And the likelihood of proving yourself right is enormous because the human brain needs consistency.
After the passing to the divine of Peter, on 31 July 2021, I realized how much I was changed and I got in touch with a very new me. It was a me that I had never seen before, even in facing grief in the past. It was very different, very hurtful, painful and beautiful, pure and magical. And I’m not only talking about the emotional part but the physical aspect too. My physiology changed; my eyes and body changed. And the love was much bigger than me, and became gigantic; the same love that Peter didn’t want to let go of and always wanted to remember.
The changes that happened created a new identity or maybe took me to the real identity of all of us, LOVE.
Love is in pain and in joy in a very similar way. In any context that I can remember, there is love. Birth, death, and everything in between is about love.
Could it be that our identity is love, which is our most basic form and needs?
Could it be that all the other words are just to make love more descriptive and real, just because love feels so intangible? Could it be that we are made of love?
To all these questions, my answer is yes.