The Semiotics of Identity & Working at Home

Most of you know I have a thing about pink scarves from India, heavy duty blue jeans from Japan, and rock’n’roll boots. I can get away with that now that I’m an old professor and they just laugh at me. I was joking with my University colleagues that now we are going to be teaching at home, we’ll never have to get out of our pajamas. But lemme say, this is a terrible idea.

When we are in India we go as pilgrims and we dress the part. To the nines. This makes all the difference and the local people are deeply appreciative. Even as a college professor I come looking like, well, something of the same. It makes a difference because we don’t dress merely because of the weather.

I’m not merely suggesting a fashion update. I am saying that locked up at home as we are all going to be, it will become important to nurture your identity. How you are on the outside really does affect how you feel on the inside.  (Be as elegantly yourself as the dog in this picture—and as comfortable.)
When we put on our “work uniform” we step into an essential asepct of professional identity. We have multiple selves—personal, professional, creative—and all of them play a part in holding together the world. 
When Krsna in the Gita is asked why he does what he does, he says loka-samgraha, which means “holding the world together.” But literally this phrase means something like “grasping light.” What Krsna is pointing towards is the fact that our identities are formed both inside and out; how we present ourselves informs our inner state. We are the light we offer, we are the shadow we create. To become whole we must care for the whole of our human self and that means our social self even when we are being asocial.

India taught me to care about these things because everything about learning depended on finding a way to hold myself together and immerse in a different world. The same thing happened when at only 28 years old I was a college professor not much older than my students but closer to their age than I was to my colleagues. The way we look really does root in how we relate to others, how we situate ourselves in social complexities. Tribe is recognized, a narrative is being put forward, and if we put those stories on mute—if we never get out of our pajamas—we will be dismissing, even losing important features of identity.

When I thought about what I’d said to my colleagues the other day about not getting out of our pj’s, I almost immediately realized how wrong I was. So everyday since events turned me into the college-professor-now-teaching-from-home I’ve gotten myself together every morning.

Now all this may just be me but I doubt that. I think that we’re in a time when it will be too easy to become unmoored, afloat in a world in which few things are familiar. When that happens we must re-root and find ways to tell our inner story. It’s important to remember that our story entails all aspects of self, inside out and outside in. Putting yourself together, just a little bit, everyday can make an important difference.
You might at first feel liberated by days that require nothing more than jammies. But think Ganesha here: these routines and changes, these habits of personal and professional identity create meaningful boundaries. With boundaries we know who we are and what we need to remember, who we are and who want to be. So enjoy your personal revolution for awhile, ’cause why not? But then even if you are home all day, put yourself through your changes, step into your conditionality and stay a player in creating your boundaries.

I think in the long run you will find yourself more emotionally grounded, with a clearer sense of self. You are communicating with yourself when you step into those forms that help you tell your story. You will feel more connected to yourself and when the time comes again, you will re-connect because you never forgot who you are.

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