Lately I have been overwhelmed by the enigma that is the Self. I wrote a piece this summer about introversion and extroversion and the idea of having an innate self. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about constantly over this year because I find my own self consistently changing.
People write about growing up, getting new jobs, and learning to love yourself but no one ever writes about how you are supposed to learn to get along with all of the old selves you’re shedding and all of the new selves that you are perpetually morphing and shifting and snapping into.
It’s not so much the changes themselves but rather the sheer insanity of the rate of change. Some days I am so keenly aware of the changes that I get a pulsing feeling of longing in my stomach and I realize that it is a homesickness for a place that housed who I once was and a mourning for a person that I used to be intimately acquainted with but no longer speak to.
It’s weird too because I am forever trying to pinpoint the exact moment that I shift into a new collection of identities. Maybe this comes from my evangelical upbringing. There was often a pressure to share our “testimonies,” to focus on the moment of conversion, the “Come to Jesus Moment,” the point at which one is forever transformed.
At what point? At what point?
I understand of course that it is not really about—what point. It’s more about slowly coming into your fullest self, piece by piece falling into place. But these pieces snap into place in such drastic ways that it feels like every few months or so, every new job, every new skill, every book, every personal epiphany makes me feel as though I’ve taken on a completely new identity.
And the thing about all of these new selves is that you can’t just say, “OK, I’m different now. Cool,” and then hurtle forward as your new self. You’re constantly affronted with things that remind you of this old self.
Candle scents. Old friends. Books. Journal entries. Songs. Places. Memories of course. Old text messages. Pictures. A constant bombardment of reminders that scream, “Hey! You’ve changed a lot! Who was this old person who burned this candle in her very first apartment? How do you feel about her?”
On each square inch of the farm where I grew up I see a younger version of myself and my siblings–riding bikes in the graveyard, playing summer dark tag in the garden, getting scratchy legs from climbing hay bales, and the distinctly fishy smelling me on a float trip in the James. The old memories accost me with a nauseating force. It’s effortless to feel the conglomeration of emotions that seeing these scenes evokes but harder to pick out which specific emotions run parallel with each of my selves.
Television and books and family members all tell me that these old memories should be warm and sweet since the content is idyllic. But I no longer recognize the protagonist of these old stories nor can I even attempt to feel the childlike joy that she felt at the freedom of reading books atop trees. These two facts make the memories as frightening and surreal as Salvador Dali painting.
It is difficult to feel comfortable and not sick and strange when thinking about how much I have changed and am changing.
And when will it end? This perpetual shifting of selves? Do people in their 30’s experience this? In their 40’s? If I stop changing so much will that be good? Or bad? Or is it neither bad nor good?
Joan Didion is one of the few writers who seems to understand this distinctly horrifying feeling of losing one’s selves. And she seems to view this changing of selves as normal. The visceral sense of relief that overcame me to the point of tears the first time I read this passage is still near to me every time I reread it.
It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.
Since this summer, I’ve also been emotionally wrangling myself over one particular question—it’s a riddle by the philosopher Plutarch. The riddle is often called Theseus’ Paradox and it goes something like this: if a ship needs new parts and those parts are replaced gradually over time until all of the parts have been replaced, is it still the same ship?
I, myself, am Theseus’ ship. If I keep changing and shifting and growing and losing, am I still fundamentally the same person even though I don’t feel like the same person? Even biologically, every second, thousands of my cells are replicating. I want to feel grounded and less terrified by the ever morphing identities that I’m gaining and losing like atoms gain and lose their protons and electrons.