Wednesday, September 15, 2021

In The Process Of Becoming Ourselves


The specific collection of atoms that formed me on the day I was born has not existed for decades, yet I've remained me for 59 years and, if history is any guide, I expect to be me until the day I die. 

Even through that afternoon some years ago when I experienced a brief spell of amnesia, brought on by a migraine as far as I can tell, I remained me. I still knew my name, I knew my wife and daughter, my mother, father, brother and sister, but for the life of me, I couldn't identify anyone else. It came upon me as I was looking at my Facebook page. In a flash all those friends became strangers. I was certain that I had, through some fluke, been logged into someone else's page. Still, throughout that experience, there was a continuity that let me know that I was still me, even though a piece of me had been temporarily erased.

It was unsettling nevertheless. There is comfort in knowing the full story of who we are, although I reckon that most of us, at one time or another, have fantasized about turning the page and finding ourselves in an entirely different story. Some of us even act upon it, trying out everything from new addresses to new life partners. We might quit our jobs. We talk about getting a "fresh start," as if wishing to return to the womb in order to begin again with "Once upon a time . . ." 

Sometimes you read about a person, often a criminal on the run, who has gone so far as to assume an entirely new identity. In the end, we learn about them because they've been discovered, but I wonder about the ones who get away with it. Even if they can eventually assume the trappings of a new me, the old me is still there in the story of what came before.

Young children are just beginning to experience themselves as a lifelong story, but we err if we assume that their's is not as rich, deep, and meaningful as our own. These are the foundational chapters being written, the stories they will spend the rest of their lives embracing or rejecting. The temptation is, out of our love for them, to try to steer their stories toward the sunshine and butterflies, and we no doubt should when given the chance. We turn off the scary movies. We shield them from the news. We turn their attentions toward the bright side and try to wrap their anxious visits to the pediatrician in the garments of heroism.

Casey Curran

We should do all of that, of course, but no matter what we do, our children, like all of us, will at times grow dissatisfied with who they are and wish, at least temporarily, to change it. We see it in their dramatic play where they literally try on transformative costumes. We see it as they assume their roles in housekeeping games. We see it when they imitate others. In many ways, they have the advantage over us in that they are children and no one expects them to remain children forever. We know from a very young age that we will grow up to be something else, yet the stories of adult transformation is not nearly so clearly laid out. We tend toward stagnation, especially once when we've achieved one of our "goals," like owning a home or getting married or landing the perfect job. We forget that we are always in the midst of our story.

We take our vacations. We drink too much. We have affairs. We lose ourselves in popular entertainment or books or music, but these "escapes" are more in the spirit of placing a bookmark in our story, only to return to where we've left off. No, what I think I've learned from spending so much time with young children is that I want my own story to be one that is so engaging that I can't put it down. And that means it can't all be sunshine and butterflies. Or rather, sometimes the butterflies must be in my stomach. Sometimes I must head out into a storm. Sometimes I must step off into the unknown. These are the moments of transformation without which that thing that I call "me" cannot move beyond that original collection of atoms.

When we consider a child, we strive to see them for who they are, but we cannot help but consider who they are becoming, because growing and changing is so clearly in the nature of childhood. Too often, I think, we forget that this is also in the nature of life. We are always in the process of becoming ourselves.

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