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“We Know What We Are, But Know Not What We May Be”

Who Am I? Depends Who You Ask

Barring a few Zen Masters, all of us spend virtually every waking moment (and every non-waking moment) in our own heads. These accommodations may strike you as lightless prison cells, bright, soft palaces, or something in between, depending on your moods and/or medications. Hamlet claimed, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” before he added the very on-brand counterclaim in the same breath, “…were it not that I have bad dreams.” We are both limited and freed by our perceptions.

I get this isn’t revelatory. It may very well not even rise to the level of interesting.

Equally trite is my observation that most of us devote a large amount of floorspace in our headspace to the study and curation of ourselves. And at least some square footage of that area is concerned not just with what we think about ourselves at any given moment, but for those of us who, let us just say, skew in the less self-enlightened demographic, what other people think of us.

People: Just Who Do They Think We Are? And Who Do I Think They Are, and Who Do I Think I Am To Think That About Them?

And, there, to once more quote Hamlet, is the rub. I know, knowing what others think of us is ultimately unknowable and the only consolation we can take in this is a dubious one: odds are people aren’t devoting much time to thinking about us at all. People, some people say about other people, shouldn’t worry about what other people think.

Perhaps. But other people (well, one person, Jule Styne, to be precise) have written songs (well, one song) telling us that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Other people have written songs claiming people are strange when you’re a stranger, urging people to smile on their brothers in an attempt to love one another, and beseeching us to look at all the lonely people.

We get it, songwriters: you’re marketing to people.

I quibble with those who say not to worry about what others think. A bit. All things in moderation, the Greeks cautioned us, and I think that includes thinking about what other people think. And let’s face it: they were people, so they were in an excellent position to know. To add a bit to the quote by Ophelia (Hamlet’s erstwhile girlfriend) which gives this post its title, we know what we are (hmmm, maybe), but know not what we may be (to other people).

This, to me, is important. Critical, in fact.

“I Am Nobody! Who Are You?”

Regardless of how we perceive ourselves, others will, with varying degrees of interest and effort, construct narratives of who we are. What we say, what we don’t say, what we do and fail to do, what we refrain from and persist in define us to others as well as ourselves. It’s hard for me not to think of myself as a fixed, monolithic thing. I know this to be intellectually dishonest, but my little monkey brain, even as it constantly redrafts the pervious versions of myself and my experiences, believes on a gut level that who I am now is the irreducible and true Self. Which, at this moment at least, is true.

“I Am Vast, I Contain Multitudes””

But that sense of permanence is, with a logic as ironclad as it is ironic, fleeting. We all, to borrow from another Shakespearean character, play many roles. Not merely, or even mostly, for ourselves.

I mention all this because I saw a Facebook post from an old student yesterday. It was a picture of a young boy (10, maybe?), her neighbor’s son, sitting next to one of her dogs, whom he adores, watching television in her living room. And it occurred to me that this young woman, to whom I taught Shakespeare, assigned essays, and inflicted lists of vocabulary on, a young woman who for me was always (and, in a way, will always be in “my mind’s eye” – Hamlet again!) a sweet, smart, kind, and funny 16-year-old girl is, to this boy, whose point of view is equally compelling and true, the nice lady who lets him come to her house and play with her dog. She will be, and already is, as we all must be, a thousand other things to hundreds of others: fiancee, wife, kind nurse, rude nurse, loving mother, pain-in-the-ass mom, best friend, friend who faded away, nice person who always tipped well, thoughtful neighbor, angry customer, doting grandmother, favorite aunt, vaguely recognizable face in a grocery store, sister, daughter…I think I’m belaboring the point.

“I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me And We Are All Together”

And who/what am I to her? As the beginning of this post augured, it’s anybody’s guess. Certainly her high school English teacher, the person who taught her, whether she’s aware of it or not, what the words “gossamer,” “perfunctory,” and “morbid” mean. Maybe someone who taught her she doesn’t totally hate Shakespeare. At minimum, or quite possibly maximum, a former teacher who was affable enough to “friend” on Facebook and ‘like” pictures of his dogs.

If that is the person I am to her and her peers, I am contented. There are worse legacies.

I have, am, and will be more and more complicated to some people, less and worse to others. As my life continues to unfold, so much of myself – most of almost everything – will remain unraveled to people, including myself. And I’ve learned to not only accept that, but feel a measure of gratitude for it.

That’s just the sort of person I am, I think. You may or may not disagree.

10 thoughts on ““We Know What We Are, But Know Not What We May Be”

  1. The mind is that thing which looks at itself and every thing else and then builds our entire experience, moment by moment. It fascinates me and I enjoyed your post. My English teachers were my favourite, I believe you would have been a particularly interesting one.

  2. Wow, this is deep and such a fascinating perspective shift, I’ve often wondered if I would be a happier person if I didn’t spend time considering what you have described so well in this post. Well, in my head, it is not as well-written and can’t quote Shakespeare like you do, but otherwise more or less the same funhouse.

    So I love how you landed this – with gratitude for our strange mix and complexity. And a great last line! Beautiful!

  3. The space in my head used to be filled with dark images of myself as a monster, where I relived every battle, every perceived negative and loud strident noises of how I was a lover and would never be able to do anything right.

    A few short years ago I decided to redecorate my inner living space. I no longer wished to live with the old trappings I had gathered, they were exhausting me and paralyzing me into anxiety and depression.

    Instead I wanted to create a happy and serene place. The old decorations were carefully examined and I realized they were cheap copies of how I had been treated, but in truth didn’t represent me.

    The clean out is very scary, for who are we if we remove all the negatives which really don’t belong, but from which we had pulled our identity for so long?

    Who are we to be when we clean house?

    I was afraid that I wouldn’t find anything of value left in my rooms, yet when I decided to shine a light on all those hideous thoughts, I discovered they were mere dark shadows, having no real substance, so they left, one by one.

    What remained was actually a very nice place to live! It took a lot of time and effort to clean up and to polish what was there before, but I found that words of encouragement to myself helped more than I could have imagined and soon there was color up on my walls, sunshine coming in once more from windows that hat too long been boarded up. The more I worked on cleaning up this inner space, the nicer it became!

    This was an absolute shock to me to discover that such a radical change was possible, much less that I was capable of doing it myself.

    The mind is truly incredible at what it can do, and our inner being is capable of such transformation!

    1. I have been doing some work on decluttering my inner living space, but I certainly have anxiety about what I will find once I really start cleaning it out. I am not worried that I will find something hideous or disgusting or repulsive or hateful…what I think I am worried about is that I will find nothing at all. That once I remove the furniture and peek within the shadows that I will be left with a completely blank space, devoid of character. Or perhaps I am worried that I will discover my true calling, and that finding it will show me that everything I have been doing up until now has been the wrong track and time poorly spent.
      I guess I understand in a rational sense that the only way to get to the other side is to go through, but at this point in the journey it certainly feels like a difficult step to take. Thank you for providing this perspective on your own journey so that I can keep the end in sight.

      1. Andy, I love Marie Kondo’s approach to curating our physical life, but perhaps this approach can be applied to our inner life? That is how I tried to approach my shadow work (not knowing Marie’s approach at the time, just asking myself if it was something I still wished to carry forward with me), and I found it to be immensely freeing.

        What does it matter if we switch horses mid-life? Everything that existed before and everything we did before will still speak to our new choices, enriching with our experiences.

        As an artist, when I learn a new a medium or technique, I’m not starting from the point of a rank beginner, for I bring a wealth of experience and knowledge and can then use those skills to interweave with the new learnings.

        So it is with life. When we clean out the old shadows and cobwebs, we don’t end up with a state of “nothingness’, but rather a fresh start.

        Even if you were to discover a completely new side of yourself, the old experiences wouldn’t have been for naught. I became a writer long after I was an artist, and each thing enhances the other; so it will be with you, for you won’t be expunging those memories or skills you learned, they will enhance your new path.

  4. I love Wynne’s mention of the mind as a ‘funhouse’. That seems so spot-on for how I feel about my brain…and this, Jack – love it: “Regardless of how we perceive ourselves, others will, with varying degrees of interest and effort, construct narratives of who we are.” That’s a home run and a humdinger of insight…especially for me, the one who too easily shape-shifts, depending upon my perceptions of what the ‘audience’ is looking for, expectations from others. I do it so easily I forget I’m morphing…until I realize I’ve picked up local mannerisms, lingo…and yep, even a twang at times. Shame on me. Nope – never mind. No shame, it’s JUST me. Thanks for your provocative post. Plenty to mull over…in my very own funhouse. 😉

    1. What a kind and well-written comment you’ve laid on my cyber-doorstep! I think we all “shape-shift” to accommodate our environments. Or perhaps I should say, we shape-shift watch to accommodate what we THINK our environments demand. I catch myself doing it all the time.

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