“To be totally honest, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t think people ever will know who they are. We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I? I am a mystery to myself. I am someone who is in this pilgrimage from the moment that I was born to the day to come that I’m going to die… So, what I have to do is to honor this pilgrimage through life. And so I am this pilgrim…who’s constantly amazed by this journey. Who is learning a new thing every single day. But who’s not accumulating knowledge, because then it becomes a very heavy burden in your back. I am this person who is proud to be a pilgrim, and who’s trying to honor his journey.” Paolo Cuehlo
A lot of the time, I want to have myself “All Figured Out.” I used to think I was one good journal session away from an Ultimate Breakthrough. I’d pour over personality test literature like a gold miner in California. Rather than searching for gold, I was yearning for a mirror to reflect back all the subtleties of my identity. Such relief was felt in articulating just how I was feeling and why, and then what I was going to do with that. Action plans and poetic self-actualization at its finest, folks.
The thing about entering into transitions, planned or not, is that they expose to us our own mysteries. Our predetermined presumptions fall away as new environments or situations bring out inner enigmas and paradoxes.
See, transitions have a way of slowing us down, or at least breaking us out of our normal routines of insulating familiarity. The hidden undercurrents of what we have been taking for granted become exposed. Our habits, our way of interacting with the world, our desires and interests, our very personality are seen in new light.
Inklings come to the surface: I thought this is what I wanted, but now I’m not so sure…I never thought I would’ve even considered that opportunity, but now I find myself intrigued…I used to assume that this was the way it was, but what if it isn’t? Rather than the clear-cut assumptions we’ve been living out of, we find within ourselves a cacophony of opposing desires and driving forces.
What will we do with these new revelations? Change at any level can be scary. When we sense this metamorphosis happening at our core, we are faced with a choice. Do we submit to the process of death (of our old selves, our old way of being) and the painful/awkward process of figuring out a new life? Or do we run to the safety of business-as-usual?
It depends on whether you see the world you inhabit as static or dynamic.
A static view of the world: Things are finished. Already written. I am the way that I am. The world is going to keep going on the trajectory that has been set since the beginning of time.
A dynamic view of the world: The world is unfinished. Things were set in motion, but we have agency, choice, response-ability to interact. I can change things and be changed.
A static viewpoint would dismiss new awakenings as passing fancies.
A dynamic viewpoint would listen attentively, holding back judgment.
A static viewpoint sees life as something that is happening to you.
A dynamic viewpoint sees life as an open invitation to enter into the creative process.
A static viewpoint says “This is the way I am.”
A dynamic viewpoint says, “That was who I was. Who am I now becoming?”
A static viewpoint sticks to the planned narrative.
A dynamic viewpoint is open to plot twists.
We feel frustrated when others tell us about ourselves, announcing with a smug gleam in their eye something to the effect of “Oh, let me tell you who you are. I know what you are thinking. I know what you want. This is the way you always act.”
How dare you? You don’t know the first thing about me! We think daggers at them as we smile tight smiles with our ingrained politeness.
And yet, isn’t this exactly what we do with ourselves all the time? Well, that’s just the way that I am. I always (fill in the blank). I’ll never (fill in the blank). We get stuck in our own ruts of familiarity. We succumb to repeated history, with a shrug. Truth is, we’ve started letting others, our past, and our current circumstances name us a long time ago, and it’s just a lot easier to stay the course.
There’s something comforting in choosing a static view of the world and ourselves. We take solace in thinking that we don’t really change that much over the course of our lives. We like the stories our mothers tell at family gatherings about how we were when we were toddlers, and how our personality traits that we now possess were evident, even then.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I geek out about discussions around personality. I find the dynamics of how we are wired and how that affects us fascinating. But I felt a paradigm shift happening while listening to NPR’s Invisibilia a couple of weeks ago. (If you don’t listen to this podcast, you’re wrong. Start at season 1, and then let me know so we can talk about it!)
There was an episode on the “myth of personality.” What if these assumptions about how our dispositions stay constant throughout our lives were just that, assumptions? Assumptions that we build our lives around. Personality tests are excellent diagnostic tools to discover why we are the way we are currently, but they can be dangerous when they start becoming the definition of who we are, a sentence of who we will remain. Equally dangerous is the act of putting our full identity in our occupation, or a specific relationship, role or tribe.
Even though we hate the idea of labels and bristle at others trying to put us into boxes, why is it that we cling to these self-descriptions? Why do I feel just a little bit lost now that I don’t have a nice and tidy answer to the question “What do you do?” It’s harder than it sounds to make peace with our own mysteries and contradictions. I feel a safe sense of control when I have things “figured out.” When I can pin things down in a static viewpoint, I know how to operate.
It is true that there are patterns, predictable tendencies from the interwoven mystery of our genes and our environment. And our brains need to have categories, which involve labels. Sitting down to wrap my mind around something is a necessary step in moving forward. That’s not the issue. The issue comes when we settle into those categories, becoming rigid in the way we see our own possibilities of who we are.
The question is, how willing are we to be surprised by ourselves?
The quote at the beginning of this post is from Krista Tippett’s interview with Paulo Coehlo. I am challenged and inspired by what he said. “We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I?” Author of the book The Alchemist, Coelho was a man who lived his life as one on the journey of pilgrimage. To say, at the age of 66 “I don’t know who I am” is a statement that belies a humble wisdom. I like to think that I’ve got myself figured out at age 28 1/2. But in transition’s stark clarity, I see that I have so much unlearning to do. I want to adopt Paolo’s generous curiosity towards myself.
I want to fully enter into the “endless process of becoming” as Rob Bell calls it. And the older I get, the more I’m realizing that wisdom isn’t in arriving at conclusions and staying there. It’s more a series of funerals and birthdays; letting go of the old and being open to the new. I truly am being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I’m not letting go of who I am, but becoming more deeply myself.