Youths spend a lot of time finding themselves, but as I have aged I feel that I spend a good deal of time losing myself. I come to a realization about myself or the world I live in, and it causes me to re-evaluate my past. The trouble is, I don’t remember all my past. Moreover, whatever new truth I’ve discovered influences the events I call to mind, so that my re-interpretation of myself is never complete. Yet this incomplete understanding subtly shifts my identity. This process happens again and again until inevitably my understanding of who I am and what my core values are have drifted a long way from where they began.
Part of growing up is to become more fully who you are. (Some would say, “who you are meant to be,” but that implies an intention on someone’s part, someone who is not you, but is somehow responsible, at least in part, for the kind of person you become. While I believe in that someone, not everyone does, so to keep this as open as possible to every reader’s understanding, I will not insist on any sense of direction or destiny.) You grow into yourself like when you were a kid, and your parents bought you shoes that were a size or half a size too big, knowing that your feet would grow into them before another year had passed. And your feet did grow, and eventually the shoes even became too small if they were well-made enough to last that long. So too as you grow, you discover yourself and begin to flesh out the sketches of yourself that you’ve made: what things never fail to please you, what things you greatly fear, what things present a challenge your heart leaps at, and what things overwhelm you with their impossibility.
Then just as you become comfortable being who you are, you begin to learn more about the world.
I sometimes feel that I’ve outgrown myself, but I think it is more accurate to say that I’ve re-imagined my own memories so often that they are no longer true memories. They have become stories that I use to reconstruct my sense of self, and I’m not sure any more how true they are. Sometimes, when I check my memories against those of brothers or sisters who shared in the same events, I discover stories so different from my own that I doubt mine, and that doubt also becomes incorporated into my own sense of self.
Our common understanding of aging is that the old are set in their ways, so firmly themselves that they can no longer change. But I am beginning to believe that what really happens is much more complicated. Frightened at losing our identity, we cling steadfastly to the few scraps of self we are certain of while the rest becomes increasingly diaphanous and diffuse. Family members think they know us, but they do not see the vast balloon of self that floats overhead. They only see the thin tether that anchors it to the ground.