Thursday, May 06, 2021

To Be Alive is to be Ceaselessly Beginning



I met Amelia as a two-year-old. Like many young children experiencing their first days of school, she didn't talk to me. Feeling shy is a common, and completely rational, reaction to new people and environments. It wasn't just me. As long as she was in the classroom, she didn't talk to anyone, including her own parents. Again, not a problem. She talked at home, in the car on the way to school, and in other places, but her lips were sealed once she crossed our threshold. 

We're a cooperative school, which means Amelia's parents attended school with her. They assured me that when she spoke of school at home it was always with enthusiasm. That didn't surprise me because other than the not talking, she always seemed engaged. Not only that, but as she approached her third birthday she was making friends. She was part of a group of three girls who played together every day. It was never clear if the other girls even noticed that Amelia was a silent playmate.

I discussed selective mutism with her parents, although the descriptions in the literature never quite fit Amelia. She didn't show others signs of anxiety, nor did she seem to fear nonverbal social interactions. In fact, we were all impressed with her, and her friends', ability to create relationships without speaking. In other words, she behaved and interacted like a typically developing child, just without verbalizing. Her parents decided that since she was an otherwise engaged and cheerful child that they wouldn't pressure her about speaking, but just relax and let her decide for herself when to start speaking in public. After all, she was still quite young. The following school year, she remained mute when it came to adults, but now began to talk with her friends. The year after that, without any intervention, she began talking to me, and then, shortly thereafter, the other adults in the room.

When she headed off to kindergarten as a five-year-old her parents told me that she "reverted" to silence for the first couple months. Her teacher had at first been insistent that they get professional help, but the parents urged her to be patient, and sure enough, Amelia soon found her way to vocalize. I lost track of her family after that, but I recently learned though social media that she graduated from high school. I reached out to her parents in congratulations. According to her father, "No one would ever guess what a shy little girl she used to be." He described her as outgoing, charming, and something of a social butterfly. The photos he showed me place at the center of large groups of friends, looking for all the world like a teenager living her best life. 

I'm sure that there a some reading this who believe that her parents were too cavalier or that I should have been more insistent upon engaging professional help. It could have gotten worse. She could have been feeling extreme anxiety that we adults weren't able to identify. Most children wouldn't have responded to our "let it emerge in its own time" approach. And I stipulate to all of that, but at the end of the day, for this family and for this girl, it was the approach we took and it turned out, perhaps luckily, to have been as successful as anything else. I don't know Amelia any more. I know the young child she was, but the Amelia that smiles at me while riding piggy back on a boyfriend's shoulders is an unknown human.

I have no doubt that she still experiences anxiety, who doesn't these days? But it doesn't appear to be particularly debilitating. This new person she has grown into over the intervening 15 years demonstrates to me the plasticity of this thing we call personality. It isn't something we are, but rather something we construct for ourselves out of our environment, our emotions, and the people around us. And it changes, daily, usually in small ways, until we become someone else. If you stood these two Amelia's side by side, you would see little resemblance other than vestiges of a physical resemblance and an ability to make friends. 

I'm telling Amelia's story today, not to discourage adults from consulting with experts when they are concerned about a child, but rather as a reminder that our own personalities are not fixed things either. No one's is. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we awake each morning and construct who we are and it is never the person we were the day before. There is nothing that requires us to live up the labels others hang on us, and especially not the ones we hang on ourselves. It isn't necessarily because we don't like who we are, but rather an acknowledgement that all humans are a work in progress. Life is a constant process of becoming, a fact that is so incredibly evident in preschool classrooms where we are surrounded with young humans who are changing into new people before our very eyes.

And it never ends, this process of becoming, although I sometimes think it can be more difficult the older we get. Perhaps we feel we have too much to lose, that if we did shed yesterday's labels, the whole house of cards will come crashing down. I've been married for 35 years, all to the same woman. Neither of us are who we were when we met, which is why we are constantly asking ourselves if this is really still working for both of us. And if it's not, then we have work to do. Several times in our lives that's involved tossing the whole deck of cards into the air to see where they land, essentially reconstructing our life together according not to who we once were, but according to who we are becoming. 

Amelia's evolution into the person she is today was not a singular process, but rather the result of constant change. The great George Eliot believed that if science could see freedom, it would be evident in the mind's ability to alter itself. It "is not cut in marble -- it is not something solid and unalterable," but rather as "active as phosphorus," a continual process of becoming. She was writing over a hundred years ago, about something the scientists have only recently confirmed and named as neurogenesis. As Johan Leher writes in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist: "The mind is never beyond redemption, for no environment can extinguish neurogenesis. As long as we are alive, important parts of the brain are dividing. The brain is not marble, it is clay, and our clay never hardens . . . And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning . . . (W)e each start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells -- in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains -- we find our freedom."

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