I can tell you a story of my life in terms of change. What I was not able to do as a child that I can do now. What I was able to do in my teens that I can’t do now – all those late night things, and coping without sleep. I can tell you stories of constancy, how things from my childhood are still with me, how things that I consider integral to myself have been with me a long time. All of those stories would be true. It’s like observing light as a wave or a particle.
Every experience I have lived through has influenced me in some way. Every opportunity, every setback, every person I’ve interacted with. I’ve changed, year on year. Some of that change was good, and some of it has taken me years to unpick and recover from. As those experiences shape and shift me, I behave differently, react differently, feel differently and that in turn forms part of how the world seems to me. My own behaviour and responses shape the world I inhabit – for years now I’ve been getting faster at removing myself from drama. If I find someone exhausting to deal with to no good purpose, I step away. I say yes, emphatically, to activities and people that make me happy. As a consequence my life is calmer and richer than ever before. I feel more secure.
At any moment, who we are can seem like a substantial thing. Pressure to change is often threatening. There’s good reason to be wary of anything or anyone that demands you change against your will. Being asked or told to be what you are not is seldom good news. However, the opportunity to grow, stretch and change is usually a blessing. Given room to be more than we were, we can evolve on our own terms. We can flourish. That kind of change often comes slowly and feels more natural.
We are all full of potential and possibility. If life gives us scope to explore those possibilities, we can grow into identities that feel more real than where we started from. We are born into contexts of stories, history, opportunity or lack thereof. We are born into other people’s ideas about who we should be. Given time, space and opportunity we may find we aren’t the person we started out as. That can be a great relief, a shedding of unwanted and restrictive skin. Each choice we make can set us on a new path – and there is always scope to come back and change direction.
It’s when you’re changing that you can most easily see what doesn’t shift. We may label those qualities as virtues and vices, styles of being. “I’m a kind person with a strong work ethic.” “I’m easy come, easy go.” “I’ve got a short temper, I’m wild and passionate” and so forth. These are interesting things, but I think fairly superficial aspects of self. I don’t have a language to talk about my sense of inner self, any more than I have language to talk about the essence of a flame or a river.
I know there are some traditions that identify the core self as absence, emptiness. I don’t experience it that way. For all that I change and flicker, grow taller or smaller, changing shape in response to breezes, the quality of my flame remains flame. Or whatever it actually is. If I explore something new, I soon know what is for me and what is not. I know what fits me and what does not. I know what I respond to. It’s not something I can express in words, although I can dance it, and sometimes I can find tunes that reflect it.