Layer after layer of memories–so it is with all of this writing, going back digitally for twenty years, with another ten years’ worth of writing sitting in a box somewhere. Emotions come and go–the great sadness of this time, the time that person pissed me off or ignored me or whatever, the joy and excitement of a vacation somewhere. I don’t have that many photographs of anything, but I do have a disconnected array of jabs on mostly electronic pages of paper. I might find something I wrote ten years ago where I was reminiscing about something ten years before that, when my memories of the moment were fresher–yet, I often didn’t write in great detail, thinking I would always remember everything about the moment.
At first, the task is overwhelming–how could I ever possibly edit all of it down to nice little collections of quasi-essays grouped together by themes or chronology? It won’t be my task. Someone else will go through it, or maybe my life will remain this fragmented series of works with fiction and pseudo-fiction interleafed to the point where nobody knows who I really was.
I, too, read down through it all–well, not all of it, who has time for that?–but selections from every time period of writing. I was looking for a common thread. Who am I? Who am I, independent of my flesh and the myriad of personas I affected across time to fit in with different groups? I am branded by those who would brand me, and I used to care about that, but I am not a young person anymore. Or am I?
I call myself a Christian–I mean, I love Jesus, and I try to love his people, my neighbors. I am a terrible Christian–I still seek too many creature comforts in the face of poor people who could benefit from me sacrificing a little more. I don’t turn the other cheek enough. I do have lust and anger in my heart. By Jesus’ definition of what it means to break the commandments, I have sinned as much as anyone. But, I do love Jesus–I love the Lord my God with all of my heart and all of my might, and I do pray for my enemies and try to love them, too. I may not really relate much to most Christians, certainly very few of the so-called conservative ones, but I do try to love them, too.
I am a male. I am heterosexual. But, I can’t but somehow think that at the level of the core Self, this doesn’t matter. I could, within some realm of higher dimensions, some level of unconscious deeper than any one humans have explored, be changed to be a different primary gender or sexual orientation. I am white, but I only relate to other white people as much as the culture has been ingrained in me. Being white clearly has its benefits in this world, but maybe not the next one. I don’t think Jesus was white, so it really probably doesn’t matter much except to say that if there is a group of people being treated unfairly and inhumanly, it has to stop. I am glad, personally, that we elected a President who didn’t look like me. I would be happy with a woman as President, or a transgendered person, whoever, as long as they are highly qualified for the job, which the top white guy running right now is clearly not.
But, none of this rambling really gets at the question–who am I–who am I independent of my religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, past occupation, future occupation, etc.? Who is my spirit self, my soul, my core Self who wants to only know and give Love and share it deeply and constantly with others? I am talking about Love in its purest, most righteous form–the kind of Love that wells up when your heart breaks at the sight of someone suffering. You want to take that person in your arms, with no malice or hidden agendas, and just give them back some of the Love that likely leaked out of them. Of course, sometimes, you need that Love yourself, and you have to be mature enough to realize that you can sometimes just let yourself receive the gifts of others that come with no malice or hidden agendas.
Now that I am 40, I have started to appreciate older people and what they go through a little more than I used to. I used to imagine that my world and self during my 20s were the result of endless iterations of evolution in both the natural and cultural world, and that mine was the apex of how wonderful humans could be in their prime. The stories of how old people experienced their twenties were charming, quaint and pleasant to hear occasionally when I had the time, but those people’s twenties were nothing like mine. Or, so I thought. Now, when I read or hear about an older person describing something they did decades ago as a young adult, they still sound old to me until I realize that a lot of these so-called older people aren’t that much older than me. What’s more, my stories and musings on my past have begun to sound similar–events that are so distant and irrelEt to what is fresh and hip and cool today, that they can only be appreciated by someone patient enough to take the time to listen to me.
The real lesson here is that most old people were taken by surprise as much as I was when I first started noticing that the young, cool kids in the workplace congregated together and eyed me suspiciously when I sought to participate in the conversation. I had spent most of the first ten years of college working for a company where even at thirty I was still the wunderkind, the new kid on the block, etc. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people much younger than me–ten or more years younger–and they had no interest in pausing at my desk to listen to whatever wisdom I had gleaned from having been in the workforce for awhile. The millennials, as they are generally called, had their own ideas about how to get ahead, when to start families, what music to listen to, and plenty of strange slang words peppering their vocabulary that I just couldn’t bring myself to use. I know that with the oldest so-called millennial turning 40 in five years we are not that far away from hearing many of this bunch talk about growing old as if they were the first ones to ever experience aging.
It may seem like a rather trite thing to discover–but I am not so certain I really understood it in full until I actually started to feel this way myself: the old person you see walking past you in any given public space probably doesn’t feel like a 40, 50, 60, 80 year old person on the inside. Except for days when pain and immobility is too severe, I think most of us in our middle or later years more or less get freaked out at least once a day by the old person looking back at us in the mirror. My mental, social and emotional maturity is probably closer to that of a 25 year old, and for the most part, when I am looking out at my body instead of looking in the mirror, I see the same body I’ve seen my entire adult life. I’ve never struggled with weight issues or had any major health problems, and so, aside from the premature gray hairs here and there, I look down at myself and see a young man in his twenties. The mirror is what trips me up. Too much sun, booze and stress haven’t been especially kind to my face and my head of hair.
The message here isn’t really some vapid one about being nicer to old people. It’s more one of trying to seek the real identity of an individual–who are they, really? Of course, I know that I’ve changed in many ways over the past 15 years, and will respond to life situations differently than my 25 year-old self did. I have a kind of shelf of confidence from having seen the worst that can happen if I go ahead and do or say X, Y, Z, and know that for the most part, there’s not a lot worth being afraid of, though being a cocky, arrogant asshole seems to only work for a select few.
The question still remains–who is the Other and who am I? It would be highly uninteresting to learn that we are all 100% identical at some level of core self, and that our differences are solely based upon the experiences we’ve had inside this or that body across perhaps many lifetimes. It would be so much better to learn that even if you and I both stripped away all of the usual things we use to identify ourselves in this life, there is still something fundamentally, and beautifully, different about us.
There are snapshots in my collection of memories where I am very pleased with who I was. It was always during a period of renewal, starting over, getting cleaned up, seeking any number of programs of self improvement. But, the pleasing periods of striving for self improvement were the ones that came naturally. They seemed to just fall into place. Life began to groove, and anything seemed possible. I suspect everyone has at least a few of these moments. How can I isolate what made those moments pleasing and seem to be successful? Generally, it would seem that I had narrowed what I was doing with my life down to a few things. There was a certain level of purity to what I was trying to accomplish.
I can sense some of the similar joy that accompanied those moments at times in the present, where we have given, sold or boxed away all of our stuff except for the essentials. I don’t have a million books with a million topics sitting on the shelf, and I am almost entirely focused on getting the house ready for a move and sale, and getting myself ready for going back to school. However, the will to seek out diversions is probably still stronger than the will toward purity of being is.
Acedia sets in, and I know that I have maxed out the number of physical books I can buy, so I am tempted to download free books where they are available, and signed up for Amazon Prime so I am now enjoying an expanded offering of music, video and books that I haven’t enjoyed since I cancelled all of my subscriptions to media services. It is effortless to rationalize that whatever I am doing somehow can contribute to me overarching goal of putting a stake in the ground, re-setting my professional self in its entirety, and being someone else professionally for the rest of my life. I even managed to justify to myself and my wife a somewhat expensive trip back to the hometown and college town last July as being a kind of way to gain perspective on where I’ve been and where I am going. It could very well be that I was mostly motivated to just get out of my environment–get out of the state–entirely, just because the walls felt like they were closing in.
If you read enough mystical traditions, you start to see the recurring theme that the self you call “I” and “me” is not that important, that it might even be an illusion perpetuated by an attachment to this world. The notion that we can slip back into an undifferentiated cosmic universal Spirit can be very appealing when being ourselves feels like a complete burden. However, I am not as inclined to completely dismiss our unique selves as being simply byproducts of clinging to illusion. This seems almost absurdly fundamental, like what we learned in kindergarten about each other–each of us is special, each of us plays an important role that is different but equally important. But, I am trying to get at something a bit more profound that basic childhood social engineering. The role that each of us has to play is more profound than one of: you are going to be a doctor and I am going to be a lawyer.
My inability to get at this profound thing that I mostly just sense could be due to the fact that I can only see glimpses of a more remarkable “thing” we are all building–a kind of hyperspace library of experiences and knowledge that makes the internet look like a child’s encyclopedia. Because we do live in a world where free will is permitted, each of us is contributing to create outcomes that aren’t necessarily immutable, at least in the way we tend to think of something being immutable. The concept of being as a moving thing, a thing in flux, a process that is never a static one, is extremely difficult to grasp, since the very phrase “state of being” seems to imply that the thing is static. The very act of grasping a concept would imply that there is a static entity you can hold in your hand. Even the word “thing” implies an object that at some level cannot be altered into anything else.
I know that smarter heads have pondered this in greater detail, but all of the queries into the true nature of our being seem to fall short in describing something that I have tangentially experienced as being greater than whatever the human language has been able to categorize and describe. The operative word here is “experience.” We all have experienced something that cannot be reproduced in a lab or arrived at via rational thought. We might dismiss it as being the byproduct of latent animal functions in our brain, or a mere dreamstate temporarily induced by stress, drugs or some other uncommon event hitting our organisms, and yet…the persistence of the memory of the experience in some is unshakable and irreducible.
If experience is really the key, then it might make sense to spend some effort striving to wholly imagine what another being on this earth experiences. Forget about being in their shoes or skin for a day, imagine being in their body and immersed in their culture for an entire lifetime.