We all have things we want to change about ourselves. We all want to better ourselves and grow. We all meet up with conflict and catastrophe and want to handle such situations better than we usually do.
Often, though, personal innovation entails a series of mostly serendipitous encounters with self that occur in-between life’s highs and lows.
Transformation rarely happens all at once, instantly. The key is to live in feeling and in this way encounter a continuous, daily stream of revelatory clues as to who and what you truly are, and what you can become.
If you have authored your “self-story” in an organic and truthful way, then this narrative will help you stand above the press of the moment.
I am a cognitive anthropologist who studies how people narrate their lives and how they self-expand or hold on too dearly to old — seemingly unproductive but familiar — ways of behaving.
To engage in these inquiries I have traveled around the world talking to all manner of folks. Along the way I have also come to study myself. What’s up with me? How do I habitually stop myself from growing? How can I go passed that?
Here’s part of my self-story. A day before my eighth birthday my father died unexpectedly, at age 35. Chronic hypertension, circa 1954. I was staying at my aunt’s while my mother was almost full-time at the hospital with my Dad. Early one rainy night she came for me and told me, “Your father won’t be coming home anymore.”
For the few blocks walk to our apartment, my mother handed me a pair of galoshes to put on. Before she could realize my intention, I ran out to my aunt’s third floor terrace and threw those galoshes right over the railing onto the street. My mother questioned me, “Why did you do that?” I turned and shouted at her, “I don’t have to listen to anyone, anymore. My father is dead!”
I dealt with the loss by closing myself to others. I felt that I didn’t need anyone. I was frightened into independence.
As I grew into adolescence and beyond, people perceived me as smart and well-behaved. I have some natural intelligence, but I was well-behaved out of fear more than out of being well-bred. Fear of being without a father and fear of people finding out why my father died so young. I thought he left me because he didn’t love me, I didn’t deserve his love.
That feeling changed utterly the day my daughter was born. Her being born healthy and embodying such an innate joy with life, instantly – amazingly — erased my cynicism, diluted my anger. That change made me less responsible and more childlike.
From that day forward I just wanted to go for what brought me joy and brought me closer to people. I was on my way back to being the me that pre-dated that fling of galoshes.
For sure, before my daughter was born I had many small experiences that helped me past my young, maladaptive reaction to my father’s death. But childbirth congealed all those incremental steps.
I stayed with that state of mind from then on. I was on a search narrative for the authentic me. Many serendipitous moments helped me understand what was inside me. Watching Mick Jagger in the documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones, made me realize how much I craved the arousal of doing what I felt I was born to do, come hell or high water.
Reading what Vaclav Havel said in a speech about the difference between explanation and understanding made me realize how much I craved understanding life – and my life – from the inside out, in all its subjectivity. A rocker and a playwright-statesman shook me to my core.
And very recently, leaving a movie theater after watching the film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, I felt another revelatory moment. Exiting the building I was startled by my own tears. What was happening? Inadvertently allowing myself to feel what I was feeling, even before I could verbalize what I was experiencing, lead to a deep catharsis.
The young girl who stars in that film (and was up for an Academy Award for her performance) made me feel – more than just think — how real and inadvertently courageous she was in confronting her impending parentlessness. She was heroic in a plain way. She made me see how unnecessary my way was, those many years ago. At that very moment I knew I stepped out of my self-made bad-past, forever.
It’s funny and perhaps instructive that after so many people over the years intentionally helped me thrive and grow, my mind now veers back to these serendipitous encounters with people I didn’t even know, who left such a mark on me.
I’ve learned that a critical capacity for transformation and growth is sensuality – the ability to feel your own experience of your own experience, and not just skim over the top of experience. The task is to avoid flat-lining, not accepting life in the “blah-middle.”
Instead, go deep and risk. Also critical is having the curiosity to look under the hood of your own feelings as well as under your life’s recurrent patterns and themes. This requires focus, patience, and a generosity of spirit.
It’s easy to explain backwards, via blame and recrimination. It’s hard to predict forwards. And it’s even harder to take up the challenge of growth, especially when life deals you a lousy hand. But that’s exactly what is essential: To convert an obstacle into an opportunity for openness, allowing yourself to be open to new ways of being.
It is common in times of challenge to come face-to-face with the ambiguities and contradictions that lie just underneath the surface of everyday life. Love and hate. Strength and weakness. Desire and despondency.
But the possibility for growth is always embedded in these conflicts. Paradox can be used to create a new way of being and feeling, rather than defaulting into the lazy least common denominator.
Life is not logical. Life is not linear. Life is not an organized plan. Life zigs and zags, and it’s up to us to make our own brand of meaning and uncover our own authenticity from all of life’s twists and turns.
Bob Dylan once said, “I was born very far from where I was supposed to be born. I’m always on my way home.” Home is your authentic self. Your trial and tribulations can actually help you find your true self – your “self-story.” And when you do, you will experience that idea of you both as a stable anchor and a platform from which to explore and expand.
Take a nudge towards authenticity and growth whenever and wherever you get it. Then follow the feelings through. You won’t need galoshes.