A couple of months ago I read this article entitled, The College of Chinese Wisdom, that really struck a chord in me. Of the 2 writers of the article, one is a professor of Chinese history, and the other, a journalist and author. It’s a piece about making use of the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers, to help us as we grapple with that oft anxiety-inducing question of self-identity – who am I, and what do I want to do with my life?
It’s a question that I think is often thrust upon us very early on in life. What do you want to be when you grow up? Something that we would have heard ad-nauseam by the time we reach the age when actually need to make some real decisions that will affect our path in life. It’s easier as a child to assume the identities that have been thrust upon you from your parents, peers, teachers, the rest of society. And we can wear those identities easily for many years as we move through different stages of life, because without the comfortable feeling of that second skin, who are we without our achievements and attributes? But I think there will eventually come a time when we realize that perhaps, who we are, or who we thought we were, is not as clearly defined as we think. For some, this crisis of identity is what causes them to question the current job that they’re in or what their life goals are. (So many people my age that I’ve met are contemplating their choice of job or relationship that they’re in. And who would deny that it’s also a reflection of their uncertainties about themselves?)
As much as things in life are always never a clear-cut dichotomy of black and white, there are certain situations when there really are two main options only. When faced with the question of who am I, and the unexpected horizon of uncertainty that emerges when the answers do not come readily, one can either:
1. continue busying themselves with their lives, keeping the status quo, while the faint discomfort of having that question unanswered fades ever so quietly into the background, till it becomes an almost inaudible hum in one’s daily existence or
2.face the question with an open heart and sit in the space of that discomfort while attempting to figure out the answers
Of course you probably can tell what I would advocate. But sitting in that discomfort of uncertainty is possibly one of the hardest things one has to do.
It’s funny isn’t it? We spend so much time in our adolescence or early working years building up an identity, latching on to it, allowing it to guide our actions. But who would expect that perhaps one day, things change. Life happens. We are never the people we were yesterday or even a second ago. Dan Gilbert, a psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, says it so succinctly:
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.”
– Dan Gilbert
It’s never easy of course, realizing that maybe we don’t know who we are deep down. But is there really a one true self that we harbor within and that we simply have to mine deep enough before it can be exposed to the world?
“According to Confucius and other Chinese philosophers, we shouldn’t be looking for our essential self, let alone seeking to embrace it, because there is no true, unified self to begin with. As Confucius understood, human beings are messy, multidimensional creatures, a jumble of conflicting emotions and capabilities living in a messy, ever-changing world. We are who we are by constantly reacting to one another. Looking within is dangerous.” — Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
I just love that thought, about the fluidity of the self. How we are always in flux. And as much as we would like to take reassurance in one fixed version of ourselves, perhaps there is no one true self, but something that is constantly evolving, through the multitude of experiences and interactions of our everyday life. And by understanding that, it makes life a lot easier when we know deep down that change needs to take place.
“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.” — Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
It amazes me sometimes because who I am now is quite different from who I was last time. 5 or 6 years ago, I was so certain about where I would want to be right now and the type of job I wanted to do. Now though, my goals are vastly different. But am I unhappy about not doing what I initially had planned to do all those years ago? Not at all. When we have a goal in mind, we seem to always think, either it’ll work out successfully and I’ll be happy, or it will fail and I’ll be unhappy. When in reality, actually there is so much space in between setting a goal and achieving it. And along the way, new goals, new ideas about life, new inclinations might have emerged such that while we’re not at the original anticipated end point, where we are can be someplace entirely wonderful too.
Which makes me think that in 10 years time, though I have a vague idea of where I hope I will be, I carry within me a sanguinity that no matter what happens, I’m going to be pretty darn happy.
And on that note:
(From Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page :D)
Have ordered that book that the authors wrote called The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. Very excitedly anticipating its arrival. Will share more after I’ve read it. Do check out the article in the meantime though and I hope it gives you something to chew on as it did for me.