How do we know who we are, except by how we live? Marilynne Robinson asked in my ear. I stopped, elbow deep in the dough, because it was, I realized, the very question I ask myself every day in a dozen different ways. It is the heart of small, everyday decisions about how to move through the world, and large, existential decisions about work and place and community. Who do I want to be, and how do I live as that better self? And then the forward march of Robinson's powerful mind and the immediacy of the task in front of me pulled me back into motion.
Sometimes someone else articulates a thought or feeling you didn't know you had until you heard it said, and then it's so obvious, so fundamental, that you cannot imagine it unknown. We live much of our lives feeling alone in ourselves, even when surrounded by other people. The reminder that we are never truly alone, that someone else in the world, or many someones, holds in themselves the same experience, can come with a profound sense of recognition. It is a beautiful intimacy, to be so connected, even if it is across satellites, over centuries, or though the pages of a book.
When I was young I was baffled by the singularity of being myself. Why am I only this girl, and no one else? I asked. It seemed to me that I might just as easily wake up tomorrow in another mind and body. A soul was such an essential thing to be tied forever to so ephemeral and mundane a vessel (though of course I understood this in much simpler terms—if only I had kept a journal at eight!). This was also a time when I thought often about death—my own—with great curiosity and no fear. It was certainly the most mystic period of my life, in those early days of self-consciousness, when I could not understand myself separate from the universe, before I learned the designated boundaries of self and mind. And why, I wonder, did the adult world feel it so imperative to teach me those boundaries? Why did they insist I learn to be alone? Perhaps when I reach for poets like William Stafford and Mary Oliver, when reading Wendell Berry fills me so deep with joy and grief that the familiar words bring me to tears, I am reaching also for this forgotten understanding of myself in the world.
I read a psychology paper sometime early in my undergraduate arguing that we cannot have complex feelings without the words to articulate them. At the time we were also reading about deaf children raised without sign language, and the idea that their lack of language might leave them trapped not only in literal but also in mental silence was so hurtful that I wanted to reject the entire field of cognitive linguistics out of hand. Now, looking at the way that words have shaped my understanding of myself, I find the hypothesis compelling.
How do we know who we are, except by how we live? Or maybe, how do we decide how to live, except by defining ourselves?
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