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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

All the me's I used to be

As I near one of those milestones signifying the years since my birth, I’ve been thinking a good deal about where I am in life—or more to the point who I am in life. Popular opinion offers opposing views on the subject. On the one hand we are often told that people never change, that we are all fundamentally who we have always been. The more optimistic among us suggest that we are always changing, that who we are is a product of all the people with whom we have been in relationship and all the experiences we have had.

The latter view offers hope, that at least on some superficial level we can and most of us do alter the way we think or behave in response to the people and environment around us, sometimes for the better. However, we don’t need studies to tell us that some people remain relatively static, frozen in time, and others do not progress but regress as a consequence of their experiences, and to an unknown extent, their genetic pre-disposition.

I don’t want to do an injustice to complex questions about identity in a brief post, but I do want to note that a great deal about what makes us who we are is the subject of significant controversy, and it seems to be getting more so every day. Questions about our gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even race inevitably rest on differences in how we see and experience ourselves and how others see and experience us. But how we see and experience ourselves is rarely a fixed state; it is constantly evolving not only on a personal level but more profoundly as the world and humanity evolve.

Among the great tensions among us is a contest between those who wish to revert to a previous point in time when ‘things were simpler or better’ and those who believe we must move forward and find a way to make sense of our new-found understanding about the diversity and complexity of human existence. Do we embrace our past or live in our present? I for one do not hold with those who wistfully or otherwise wish to compel obeisance to the past. A truthful reckoning reveals that it was not simpler or better, more or less moral, more or less God fearing. Through the lens of regressives it may seem so because they close their eyes to the great harms humans have practiced upon one another since the dawn of time. The facts do not support their rhetoric. We have always feared, scorned and rejected those who are not like us--yet us is neither a fixed point nor a valid distinction.

While we as a people were never as upstanding as some would choose to believe, it is also true that in every generation there have been a handful of women and men sufficiently evolved and wise enough to set us on a course toward goodness, towards kindness, justice, and empathy. And being wise these few understood they could not gaze into the future with sufficient clarity to know who we would be as a people a hundred or hundreds of years hence. They knew that no words of guidance, no rules or texts could endure without change so they urged us to seek fidelity with the truths of our past but be open to our future, to embrace what has changed for the better, and to accept it without compelling those around us to deny what our minds, bodies and feelings tell us.

It has been said that age, for those of us who have survived into the second half of life, is indeed just a number. In my head I am far younger than my face or body betray. I hope that is not true of my thoughts and feelings which have continued to evolve sometimes in spurts and at other times over longer periods of reflection. I am not the man I was last year, much less in my 20’s and that is a good thing. I hope I have managed to hold onto the parts of me that were worthy and jettison those which still cause me to cringe when I bring them to mind. I know I am and will always be a work in progress. When I think about all the people I used to be, I am genuinely fond of some, chagrined by others. I am not a chameleon. If I was a product of anything it was not the times but the experiences that brought forward what was latent. Those people who I was were me, not inventions or placeholders, just younger, less wise, more hopeful, free of certain cares, and burdened by others.

It is good to take stock of who we are at present, and also reckon who we were in our past. It reminds us that life is surprising, that the good and not so good parts are not always what they seemed, and if we are honest with ourselves we would be less certain that we know who we will become tomorrow or next year. Although the aphorism predates Hamlet, Shakespeare put it well “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”

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