Thursday, September 30, 2021

"I Contain Multitudes"



Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

It's perhaps my favorite line from my favorite poem, Song of Myself.

It is an acknowledgement that the self is the sum total of everything we have seen, smelled, tasted, heard, and felt. It is that moment when we recognize that we are not any one thing, but rather all the things and all of our responses to things. It's true of me. It's true of you. And it is true of all of us together. It is both a simple and great truth.

As I approach the beginning of my sixth decade, I'm concerned that I don't become one of those angry old men. It's something to guard against, given how many of us age into a kind of bitterness. From the time we were children, the world told us to keep our heads up and our eyes forward. We're asked as children, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" We're never asked, "Who are you right now?" 

We're urged to "Keep your eye on the prize!" We are rarely asked if we are satisfied with right now. 

We're told our career paths must be ever upward, that achievement is about striving toward goals, and that if only we work hard enough we will reach the promised land.

When I listen to those angry old men, they tell stories that begin not as "Once upon a time," but as "Back in my day." No wonder they are angry. Their day is in the past. And, to boot, all these whippersnappers are doing it wrong. No one will ever again ask them, "What are you going to be?" They are now and forever stuck with who they are right now as the rest of the world continues becoming.

They are no longer large. They no longer contain multitudes. They have become a fixed point kept in place by memories and to do or be anything else is a contradiction. And contradiction is not to be tolerated. No wonder they are angry.

When I hear those angry old men railing against the young, the "lazy millennials," for instance, I breath more deeply and find myself in that so-called laziness. When they gripe about this or that technology, I strive to embrace it and to make it mine. When I detect that old man anger in myself, I remind myself that it is really fear and the antidote to fear is, always, to turn toward the unknown, lay my hands on it the way a child does, which is, as the great Bev Bos reminded us, the only way it will ever find a place in my head or my heart.

This is why we must have young children in our lives, why we must bring them back from the pink collar ghettos into which we, parents, caretakers, and educators alone are privy to the secret to understanding the multitudes within ourselves. Children belong in the center of life because they are they are large. Life without their wisdom of turning toward the unknown and laying hands upon it, is one that is ever narrowing, one that teaches us that we're in this alone. It tames us, it contains us. But when there are young children in our lives to remind us, to teach us, we can more easily embrace our contradictions, become large again, and to again contain multitudes.

And we can sing:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

That is the kind of old man I'll always try to be.

******

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