Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?
I came upon this pithy aphorism-in-the-form-of-a-question while I was searching for the words of a common platitude that admonishes us to refrain from comparing ourselves to others. Naturally, encountering the question with which I began this post derailed my search for the platitude; at least temporarily. As I considered the interrupting question, about a subject with which I’ve wrestled my entire life, I wondered why we tend to attribute such profundity and meaning to these witty little maxims. It’s as if the wisdom of all human experience is encapsulated in them. If only we could unlock the limitless sagacity contained in a short string of syllables, we would achieve true Understanding. Of course that’s not true. These adages can, at best, trigger intellectual and emotional considerations that may, if we’re lucky, lead to slightly more knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. But they won’t unleash wave upon wave upon wave of wisdom, drowning our ignorance in a sea of enlightenment.
The platitude for which I originally searched suggests we avoid comparing ourselves to others because doing so either crushes our self-confidence or builds it to unsustainable levels. The wording of the precept varies, but the concept varies only a little from phrase to phrase. But, regardless of the structure of the advice, the message is clear and consistent. With so much agreement between various forms of the axiom, it must be true; right? Perhaps, in many cases, it is. But I would argue that comparing oneself and one’s circumstances to others can bring reality into sharper focus. For example, when I was undergoing treatments for lung cancer, I was unhappy about what I was going through. But, during the processes, I realized that my pain and discomfort and inconvenience paled in comparison to what many others were going through. That realization did not “cure” me of my unhappiness, but it caused me to feel greater empathy for those unfortunates around me and to feel less self-pity for myself. The following quote, attributed to the Buddha, puts comparisons in a different light:
Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.
“There’s always reason to appreciate what we have, who we have close, the good fortune that befalls us, and the misfortune that doesn’t.” I wrote that sentence in a Thoughts for the Day post I wrote in November 2014. The Buddha quote expresses that reason for appreciation.
Though I said in a paragraph I wrote just moments ago that such adages “won’t unleash wave upon wave upon wave of wisdom,” maybe that’s not entirely true. They cause us to think and to explore why we think the way we do. And that exploration leads to greater wisdom; at least we become wiser about ourselves.
The two concepts I’ve been exploring this morning, self-knowledge and comparing oneself to others, fit together quite well. Mentally, I am creating a pair of lists. The first is a list of who/how I want to be. The second is a list of who/how I am now. I compare the two to identify what changes I must make to enable me to transform the person in the second list into the person in the first. But there’s a piece missing. That second list is who I am now, after the world told me who I should be. Well, the world didn’t tell me. But it shaped me. It replaced the natural me with the person who responded to others’ expectations. That will be the perpetual struggle, I think. Trying to peel away the layers of “stimulus-response” identity to uncover the identity unique to this mass of cells that form my mind and body.
When I think of such things (the entire string of thoughts comprising this post), I feel rather sad. I feel I’ll never be able to find that original me, so I’ll never know who I was before I allowed the world to transform me into who I am. I’m pretty sure I’d like that original me much more than the current version. But then I think, again, of the Buddha’s suggestion of thankfulness and I realize I may not be happy with who I am, but at least I’m not the monster I could be. I have so much for which to be thankful, and I am, indeed, thankful for all of it. But sometimes, it’s not easy being me. Yet it could be far harder being another person, so I’ll make it my mission to avoid being that someone else.