Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Who to Be

A good friend of mine has always measured his life against the yardstick of Alexander the Great.  He was surprised, and not altogether pleasantly, when he didn't die at the age of 32.  And his feats, amazing as they are from where I sit, have thus far been a disappointment to him, in Alex (as I like to call his role model) terms.  Nevertheless, he lives his life large, attempting to make a big mark.  His eventual passing will probably not go unremarked in the public arena.  

I, on the other hand, occupy a much smaller stage, in my own mind and in reality.  Sure, I had dreams as a young person of being a female Albert Schweitzer, and later of making it into the ranks of lesser-known female novelists.  But life, and motherhood--very complicated, drawn-out motherhood--intervened, and brought me and my dreams "down to size."  Like most of the teeming masses of humanity, I aspire to love well, live well, and make whatever contribution I can to alleviate suffering in the world.  I am not, perhaps, as disappointed with how things have turned out as if I had reached higher.  But then I may not have exerted as much effort, scaled as many mountains, or "realized my potential" as completely either.

At this stage of my "life project," I am looking back and looking forward, and deciding again who to be, or who to try to be.  My husband's academic work emphasizes the importance in all of our lives of "multiple conflicting identities."  Thus a crooked cop may also be a father, a poet, an avid gardener, and an active church member.  And I am, among other things, a mother, a writer, a triathlete, a social justice activist, a special education advocate, a messy housekeeper and an erstwhile pianist.  On any given day, my hours are allotted between these competing, and sometimes contradictory roles.  And in the wee hours, when my waning hormones and insufficient stress management skills conspire to keep me awake, I sometimes contemplate the confusing signals I send to myself and people around me about who I am, who I mean to be.

I don't think we can really answer this question, or are meant to, by penning an essay in a "blue book,"--that dreaded accoutrement of college exams.  It is something we discover as we live, and reflect on, and live again.  From the evidence to date, it seems pretty clear that I'm not Alexander the Great, or Albert Schweitzer, or a lesser-known female novelist--not yet anyway.   But I am aware of energy gathering--most of it in the form of disquiet or, less neutrally, my old friend anxiety--for some shifts in who I am, and how I experience my life.  I don't imagine that the scale of my enterprises and engagements will change radically.  I don't really see a New York Times obituary in my "future."  But something new is brewing.  And I am curious about what it will be.  And who I will be in its presence.

Much of the mindfulness literature I have been reading speaks of curiosity, and recommends it, as an attitude toward the future.  Since my knee-jerk response to the unknown and uncertainty is almost always fear--sometimes stark terror--I am surprised to find that this part of my tomorrow doesn't frighten me.  Maybe curiosity is part of who I'm becoming.

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