I recently came across some lines from poet Diane Ackerman’s book Cultivating Delight that invited reflection:
Living things tend to change unrecognizably as they grow. Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant?
Flora or fauna, we are all shapeshifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.
I think the reason this grabbed my attention is that in a way it runs against a familiar cultural current. With the exception of changes in childhood, I feel like western culture tends to emphasize not only the stability of an individual, but the importance of that stability. In my experience, the process of people changing substantially can be viewed with some suspicion.*
I grant that stability in certain traits is admirable—let’s always be trustworthy, brave, compassionate. But consider the value in this idea of life as a plural noun: can we entertain new possibilities while honoring the sequence of selves† we have been?
Thinking about my own personal caravan might be an interesting exercise, and looking back could provide some valuable food for thought. But here’s the most pressing question: what self am I building right now?
*By this I don’t mean that there’s something suspect about doing a series of different jobs (say, grad student then music teacher then librarian then novelist). I’m contemplating changes on a different level. Can we change the way we react to situations? Can we change habits so thoroughly that we surprise ourselves and others?
†Considering a sequence of selves as life stages, my thoughts jump to Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, given by Jacques in As You Like It. I featured a very nice little animation of it in this post.
[Images: Wikimedia Commons, fineartamerica.com]