As you may have guessed from recent posts, I’m in a very contemplative and self-preoccupied space lately. Much of my writing has been about what I call “Let-Self-Change”, based on the principle that we can’t really hope to change the world very much, so what we should concentrate on is adapting to the world, letting ourselves change.
But now I’m not so sure on either count: I’m beginning to think we have more power to change the world than we might imagine; more on that in an upcoming post entitled Why Activism Works. And I’m beginning to think we have less power to change ourselves than we might expect: We cannot be other than who we are. Look at all the self-help books out there, and from what I can tell almost none of them has any enduring effect.
I’ve been talking a lot about my three latest self-improvement projects: To connect better with my own (largely suppressed) emotions, to become more empathetic, and to learn to live in Now Time instead of Anxious Time. I certainly believe that practice and exercise have value, but I’m increasingly convinced that any changes they provoke are likely to be modest, and perpetually difficult to sustain.
So what if I were to just slow down, make space, and pay attention to who I really am, now? And then just accept that that is who I am, already, this nobody-but-myself I keep aspiring to become?
The result of my doing so (aside from some consternation and self-dissatisfaction I had to sit with for a long time to quell), is the word self-portrait above. Here’s what it acknowledges:
- I am, and I think we all are, largely a product of two forces over which we have little control: our bodies, that “complicity of organs that evolved our brains as an information-processing and feature-detection system for their benefit”, and our civilization culture, that molds us with language and socialization to behave and fit into this overcrowded world. The two lower boxes of my self-portrait list the qualities that I think each of these forces have instilled in me. I am not blaming ‘them’ for this, just acknowledging that they have played important roles in formng who I am. Had I grown up in a natural environment outside of civilization, the qualities in the lower left would still be present.
- There are some other qualities, that I list as Things I’m Not, that I’ve repeatedly acknowledged, but I’m not sure where they ‘come from’ — they’re not clearly attributable to either my body/metabolism or the influences culture has had on me. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; whatever their cause, these qualities too are a part of who I am. I’d love to be present, empathetic, sensitive, patient, a fast learner, and carefree ‘the space through which stuff passes’, but instead I am absent, inattentive, insensitive, impatient, a slow-learner, and intense. It’s not for lack of trying to change.
- I tell myself 5 stories, shown in the upper left box, that I believe to be true stories (to the extent any ‘story’ can be ‘true’), that I don’t think I can significantly change, and which evoke in me the flurry of what Richard Moss calls “tamed” emotions in the box connected to my box of stories (they are called “tamed” because one can learn to live with them, in contrast to the ones that eat you alive). I’ve tried Moss’ approach of declaring such stories to be fictions to free myself from these emotions, but with limited and unenduring success. I can suppress these emotions, and perhaps it’s useful to do so, but I cannot deny them, or indefinitely distract myself from them. They, too, are an integral part of who I am.
- Finally, since who we are and what we do are inseparable, I’ve listed the six ‘groups’ of things I love to do. Most of my time is now spent doing these things, which is distracting me from my tamed emotions and making me, most of the time, extremely happy as a result (is happiness just the absence of negative emotions and anxieties?; I don’t know). The first two groups (imagining/reflecting, and writing), are my Sweet Spot: They are things that I do well, and which are needed in the world, besides being things I love doing. The rest of this list are things I love doing but confess to no particular competency at them. These things, too, are who I am.
That’s my self-portrait, my honest-as-possible assessment of who I am. Suppose I just accept that, and acknowledge that this rather unflattering portrait is authentic, and reflects who I have always been, and am largely fated to be for the rest of my life. And, most importantly, suppose I just accept that here, now, in this moment, this is who I am. No escape, no correction, no denying, no path to ‘betterment’.
Nobody but myself.
Is ‘knowing’ this, consciously, all that is needed? If I just let myself be this, and if I let this authentic self-knowledge guide me in deciding what to do, moment to moment, can I give up all the Let-Self-Change machinations, let go of all the gunk and intentions and expectations that are not-me, and just soar? Might it even, unintentionally, make me more empathetic, more present, less anxious, more like the space through which stuff passes?
Thanks to Nick, Cheryl, Tree, and Patti for the conversations that enabled this. Egret photo is by Eileen Nauman.