I have run around the world twice trying to figure out who I am and what I am about. And I am exhausted.
I glamorized the pursuit of self-discovery. After surviving the inevitable period of life when the need to be accepted by others is the strongest, I made it a priority to insure that my personal integrity is taken into account in whatever situation I choose for myself. How noble and…what a chore.
When a person spends most of their waking hours trying to figure out life or some other unanswerable question, at some point the mind wobbles with exhaustion and craves a break. It’s an imbalance: living the life of the mind and soul while neglecting the here and now.
Yet, this is just how thought processes work for some of us. People like me prefer munching on information before settling on a final understanding, while some need interpersonal conversation in order to learn. Still others cannot fully grasp concepts unless they can be hands on and experience it for themselves. Most of us use a variety of methods; one is not better than the other. It is only when you stubbornly prefer one mode of thinking over the others that we have a comical…and burnout-inducing…problem.
It’s like that old joke about being book smart but lacking common sense. For an example, you can really see the differences in the way people think right in the family. My youngest sister is a paragon of practicality. She is one of those hands on people who know what is needed in the moment because she is connected to people and things in the present. One day, while I was suffering from a moderate cold, I began over-spraying myself with perfume to prepare for a night out. After some time, I complained that the perfume had to be cheap because I couldn’t smell a bit of it. My little sister reminded me that I had a cold and that was probably why I couldn’t smell anything. It blew my mind. Here I am turning the bottle over and over in my hands wondering what was wrong with that particular bottle, when she knew automatically what the issue was…
Funny when it’s a small issue, but alarming when you’re turning your mind over and over asking, “Who I am? Why am I here? Where am I going? What am I doing? What’s real? What do I want?” My sister and others like her would answer the questions by living their lives, but I and people like me wear ourselves out pursuing the answers in our cloistered and intricate heads.
We are not the only ones.
The poets of the past have grappled with the same questions. Recently, I began thinking of Matthew Arnold’s “Self-Dependence.”
In the poem, the speaker begins the poem much like we’ve already discussed, ‘weary and sick’ of trying to “find himself.” To find relief and guidance, he turns to nature, the sea and the stars, to demand the secret of their poise and peace. In answer, he is given a list of qualities that the natural world displays and he is advised to follow their example.
The sea and the stars, they are neither dismayed nor distracted by mundane occurrences. They don’t demand that others provide them with fulfillment or happiness. They just do their jobs with beauty and grace, not worrying about aspects of the world that they can’t control. The sea and the stars counsel Arnold’s speaker to do the same. They tell him to let the endless pondering go and just be himself with constancy. Only then would he find the peace that he desired.
Sound advice for me, too. I think the best lesson I’ve learned through my life journey thus far is that I don’t have to have it “all figured out;” that it’s okay sometimes to just be. Of course, the poem says all of this much better than I can summarize. For your pleasure, the poem follows. Afterwards, leave me a comment. Are the last two lines any good? Are the true for you?
Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel’s prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o’er the starlit sea.
And a look of passionate desire
O’er the sea and to the stars I send:
‘Ye who from my childhood up have calm’d me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!
‘Ah, once more,’ I cried, ‘ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!’
From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
‘Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.
‘Unaffrighted by the silence round them,
Undistracted by the sights they see,
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.
‘And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver’d roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.
‘Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God’s other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see.’
O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
‘Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!’