How Do You Label Your Existence?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/3/22

Now that I’ve been retired for eight years, I realize I can no longer call myself a programmer, which is the way I identified myself during my middle years. Because Susan and I never had children, I’ve never been a parent, and thus can’t be a grandparent in my waning years, which is a label some of my retired friends proudly embrace.

My new identity is a retired person, but that’s not much of an identity and I’m not sure I like using that label, but I do. I spend most of my time reading and writing about science fiction short stories, which gives me a little bit of a purpose. I can’t call myself a scholar, but I do study that subject in depth. It’s just a tiny subject that’s not very relevant but does give my existence a purpose. I’m not sure I can justify my existence by calling myself a science fiction fan.

I guess I could call myself a blogger but don’t know how satisfying a label it would be to use. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist or philosopher but I’ve never come close to actually being either.

I look around and see people defining their existence in various smaller ways. One prominent label that is often in the news is Republican. Some of these people treat being a Republican almost like a religious identification and evidently find great identity with it. They even take great satisfaction in calling themselves a Republican or a Conservative. I’m a liberal but don’t get off on calling myself one. I think that’s one of the big differences between the two parties. Conservatives are a lot more organized, and they seem to get a lot of satisfaction out of being part of their group. I think being young and liberal is more of an identity thing. It was for me.

I observe people finding meaning in their existence in all kinds of ways. I know many people who are ardent travelers. They use the term traveler to define themselves. Many of them act like their purpose on Earth is to travel. They find self-worth by recalling the places they’ve been. I’ve noticed there are a lot of travelers with YouTube channels. I wonder if they feel like prophets of traveling?

I’m on the fringe of many subcultures. Take audiophiles for example. They find meaning in their never-ending question to achieve higher fidelity playback, I’m too cheap to go all the way with that group. I’m not a sports fan, but they are quite common around here, and they seem to find great happiness in identifying with their teams. There seems to be an overlap between sports fans, Christians, and Republicans, in that they all love their group identity and get immense satisfaction when their group wins or converts folks to the team.

I relate to many of my friends through the kinds of entertainment we share. Much of the conversations I have with my friends, deal with discussing shows and movies on television. I’m also a bookworm and find kinship with other bookworms. I’m not a foodie, but I know a lot of people who find dining out an important aspect of existence.

I believe people get more existential meaning from their pursuits when they have a strong label for themselves. The average person might love dining out, but someone who calls themselves a foodie obviously gets more meaning from it than those of us who just enjoy chowing down. And if people call themselves a gourmet, they feel even more important about themselves, like they were philosophers of the tablecloth.

That’s my trouble. I no longer have any good labels to define myself. I guess the best is Bookworm. It’s the one I’ve embraced since childhood. I’ve never been one for nice cars or clothes. I spend my money on books. I don’t travel because I prefer to read.

However, I have to wonder, when I lay dying in my La-Z-Boy, will I look back and feel my existence was well spent with all those books?

JWH

22 thoughts on “How Do You Label Your Existence?”

  1. I still call myself a programmer after eight months retirement. That’s becoming tenuous. I also don’t have a good answer when people ask what I do. I tell them I haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up. That’s substantially true.

        1. My friend Mike and I created the website https://csfquery.com/ . I had the idea but Mike volunteered to program it for me. He continues to refine the system, especially since we’re getting so many hackers attacking it. Mike can work for hours programming. I envy him that. I can’t focus on programming anymore, and I’m glad that Mike wanted to do it, the site wouldn’t have been created without him.

          While we were building CSFquery and I was doing the data entry it gave me a lot of pleasure to get up each day and get work done on the project. I still add content, but it doesn’t demand much time anymore. I do think of new features from time to time. Mike continues to find new ways to improve the site, such as tweaking the performance or writing his own APIs. Maybe you can find someone who needs a programmer for a fun programming project.

  2. Nothing wrong with “bookworm.” You write that “I’m not sure I can justify my existence by calling myself a science fiction fan,” but SFF fan (including fantasy) is good enough for me.

      1. A tiny obscure specialization? Yes, it certainly is, but the world is full of these. May all the specialists continue to enjoy them! (Asimov once commented, regarding the growth of courses in science fiction in the sixties, that when he was entering the science fiction field in the late thirties, the idea of a course in SF would have been inconceivable—it would have been like having a course in baseball cards.)

    1. I don’t think there is any meaning to life other than what we find for ourselves. Most of reality is an illusion to us, but we still see patterns in the randomness.

      1. “I don’t think there is any meaning to life other than what we find for ourselves.” I tend to agree, and don’t find this depressing. To quote Asimov again, what is meaningless to one person might be meaningful to another–a book written in Chinese which is meaningless to me might be meaningful to a Chinese person, etc.

  3. Existence well spent with books? Oh yes – dialogues with the authors of the books you’ve read are the most important of your life.

  4. I’ve been retired for six years and intend on enjoying what’s left in my Life by reading books, listening to music, and watching TV/movies. I have no desire to travel any more. Seen it, done that. With the Pandemic still killing a few hundred people each day, I continue to avoid crowds. Next week I’ll get my second Booster. I intend to stay in touch with my family and friends, but I’m most comfortable in my own house surrounded by the thousands of books and music CDs I’ve accumulated over the years. Knowing Life will diminish in the years ahead, I’m going to do my best to make every day count.

  5. I’m weird. I don’t understand the need people have for labels and identification. Politically, I consider myself independent, but not AN Independent. I suppose my identity used to be tied to what I did, but I don’t do that any more, and it’s freeing. I feel like I can pursue what I want. I take joy in the activities that I love, but I don’t identify myself with any of them. I like hiking, so I’m a hiker, but do I identify as a Hiker? No. I like rock climbing, but am I a climber? No. I like reading, but am I a bookworm? No. I like watching movies, writing, traveling, etc. Do I tie my identity to any of those things? No.

    I prefer to look for the moments I enjoy and find new ways of looking at the world and learning things. I’m also learning to relax and let go of things that I have less interest in or can/should no longer do. I’m happy to have enjoyed snow skiing, but if I never do it again, I’m okay with that. I’m fortunate that there are still things that I love to do, even if some of them are more passive than previous pursuits.

    1. I see your point, Mike–of course what’s most important is what we do, not how we identify ourselves. Nevertheless, I somehow understand the need many people have for identification, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it as long as we don’t take it too seriously. I rather enjoy thinking of myself as a science fiction/fantasy fan or buff–it’s a little game–but that doesn’t mean I have to read or enjoy every classic work of SFF.

    2. I get what you mean Mike, and I don’t think I worry about labels in that way. I’m not trying to limit myself or put myself in a pigeonhole, but I want labels for my own psychological needs. Retirement often feels like waiting to die. I always keep busy and I’m happy, but the days run together and I’d like for them to have some kind of purpose. Not in the big scheme of things, but just for me. I’ve discovered that it’s best to have something you want to wake up and do each day. Think of it as giving myself a title for my retirement career.

      1. Absolutely. If you’re just whittling away time, it can start to feel pointless. It’s good to have your own purpose.

  6. I understand your dilemma James. We’ve found that most retirees in the world we now find ourselves in, aren’t at all interested in what folks did when they were working. I’ve given up trying to explain my passion for my past life as a Business Systems Analyst, only my husband notices my frustrations and desire to improve the operations of the local health facilities. But, yes, I do believe that I can now call myself a Caravanner as that is what we aim to do as much as we can. Much the same as how a backpacker thinks of themselves as a backpacker first and traveller second. And, to qualify that I now realise that last week when my doctor proudly announced that he could now fax from his PC (have these guys been living under a rock) I asked if I could defer my appointments as I’m a Caravanner and need to get away.

  7. Funny, through reading your blog I had already labeled you! To me you’re a Renaissance person because you have such a wide variety of interests and seem pretty knowledgeable about most of them. Mind you, maybe I’m using the term incorrectly but I’m retired so I’m my own boss and can use words how I like without it affecting my income LOL. Come to think of it, the term “Self-Employed” suits me because after 6 years of retirement I’m still busy – best job I ever had; I set my own hours and place my focus where it suits me. Cheers and keep up the *helpful* writing! (in my world you’re also a sort of therapist in the way you provoke thoughts)

  8. (Mnemosyne . farewell to arms)

    Water always find a way.

    Water is an alien invader;
    humans, the ultimate bio weapon developed by Earth to derail Water’s plans.
    Tarnished and polluted, Water will depart.
    Weapons, once again, become a thing of the past.

    (me-me-me-me-me! Yeah, get over it.)

    What defines a human being?
    What do you do regularly, when awake, more than anything else?
    If so, then I am a reader-writer, or writer-reader; as far as labels go – labels, just another devil you know – just one man, closer to God perhaps, because like God (aka The Everlasting Dissatisfaction), this chaotic tranquil restlessness I call “mine” never sleeps.

    (acsacsin)

    “Celebrate Life”, they say.
    Oh Life! Mighty killer! Hooray…
    No need to deplore,
    contradictions galore.

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