If you wish to last longer, as we most assuredly do,
then you must continually re-create yourself.
You must be prepared to change everything that defines you.
- Bill Bryson
It’s a crazy, ridiculous miracle that we exist. How could we ever be bored? How could our collections of atoms make that blazing, rare leap into consciousness? We bemoan all the suffering we experience and witness, those thunderous tsunamis of turmoil, and yet so often remain blind to the glittering brilliance of the sunlight on the water.
I’m here. I exist. I was born, and will most assuredly die. I received a body that has served me extraordinarily well, on the whole: my heart has never stopped beating, my neurons keep firing, and I’ve used my hands, my senses, and my voice every single day of my life. I’ve learned an astonishing amount, and haven’t stopped learning for even a moment. I’m learning through the act of writing, right now; I’m learning to see, despite all the veils of memory and emotion and perception- all those things that seem to constitute “me.”
You must be prepared to change everything that defines you. Setting aside the goal of “lasting longer,” for which there are no guarantees, why does this statement ring so true? What defines me, as an individual? What defines us, as a species? Are we capable of changing our seemingly essential selves? What makes us think we are immutable? Are we tied to our morphology, our gender, our ethnicity, our history, our experiences? Who writes those stories? Who believes them? I’m not posing these questions to be a revisionist, or erase the reality of oppression and violence. I’m just sitting and thinking, like the statue of the poet Carducci I saw so many times as a child, near my grandparents’ home in Bologna.
What defines me? I suspect it’s not what I look like, or the people I know, or what I’ve accomplished. It’s not my possessions. It’s not my culture. It’s not even the fact that I’m a thinking, feeling human being and that I’m alive. No doubt there are many who would argue vociferously with me on these points. That’s fine. I’m not trying to be persuasive or rational. It’s just that I’m about ready to walk away from the project of self-definition entirely. Apparently I still have a name, and roles that I play in a variety of intricate stories, and thoughts in my head and all sorts of full-body emotional experiences. Oh, and I’ve been assigned a number, by the government, no less. Can I be defined by that? It seems so strange, these appendages of identity, while gazing in awe at the sunlight on the water, knowing on some level that I am the water and the sunlight, the fish, the seaweed, the nebula and stars. There is no separation.