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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Re-Inventing Ourselves

A Facebook comment from a childhood friend got me to thinking. She posed to the online world: "Is it too late to reinvent myself?"

Can we reinvent ourselves?

As I hit my forties, I fell into "The Rut", a pattern of rationalization for not trying new things, while fooling myself that I had a hard-won worldly-wisdom that "every yes is a no to something else, and such is the tragic nature of life" -- all I needed was a beret, a cigarette, and a baguette under my arm to complete this image of the dime-store existentialist.

And I felt an uneasy contempt for people who, in my view, change with the seasons and blow with the wind. I vocally touted and respected those who stay the same no matter what the circumstance or situation, jealous of their "steady as a rock" flinty navigation of life.

Reinventing yourself is the great American myth.

Two of my favorite Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, were masters of reinvention.

Ben Franklin skipped out on his indentured servant obligation to his dullard older brother. Penniless, Franklin conned his way onto a ship bound for Philadelphia by telling the ship's captain that he had knocked up a serving girl. The worldly seaman, undoubtedly in a "there but for the grace of God go I" moment, allowed Franklin to board without fee. This scofflaw reinvented himself as a wealthy printer, diplomat, philosopher, scientist, and bon vivant.

Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies, the illegitimate son of a impecunious Scottish merchant and a bigamist mother. His smarts led him to Kings College (now Columbia University), to the army, to Washington's aide, to drafter of the Constitution, to Secretary of the Treasury (and, de facto, prime minister) before Aaron Burr plugged him at age 49.

The Founders' generation granted us the great promise of reinvention, that "all men are ...endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights...Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Many of us are descended from immigrants who embraced that promise, and came to America, changed their names, changed their clothes, perhaps even changed their religion, and became an entirely new person, an "American". During the Depression, people crossed the country looking for work, moved west (California being to the American East what America was to Europe)and started new lives.

Today the long, wide and deep digital footprint we leave in our wake makes it all but impossible to perform this type of reinvention. And our pop culture heroes reflect our fascination with the idea of reinvention. They are defined by their struggle, and ultimate failure, to reinvent themselves.

Tony Soprano struggles in therapy and gropes toward escaping his mob life through a fantasy family life, blind to how violence inescapably permeates his world. Dick Whitman switches dogtags with Don Draper, and becomes a wealthy advertising executive, but is haunted by the same empty hunger he experienced in his abusive, impoverished upbringing. Walter White deals meth to support his family, and finds himself ultimately not driven by love and manly duty, but by much darker desires for power and domination.

Wait! So what is this ambivalence about reinvention? Isn't reinvention the path out of The Rut.

I don't think so.

I, and maybe you, have the moments when The Rut drops from our eyes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that "Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim."

These "moments of transition" confront us daily - a headhunter's call, a sudden glance or passing flirtation, or even road construction that sends us off the path of our commute.

In that moment, there is a rush of adrenalin, a fresh, crisp, cool breeze blows through our soul. Suddenly, what was a narrowed view constrained by memory, emotional scars of the past, and the dry comfort of habit, is thrown open to reveal abilities, perspectives, or passions that were always there operating behind the crusty, dusty walls of The Rut.

And we learn that we have been living a lie. We see The Rut.

The playwright David Mamet says that "Every reiteration of the idea that there is no drama in modern life debases us."

Mamet goes on to say "All drama is about lies. All drama is about something that’s hidden. A drama starts because a situation becomes imbalanced by a lie. The lie may be something we tell each other or something we think about ourselves, but the lie imbalances a situation. .... if you’re someone you think you’re not, and you think you should be further ahead in your job, that neurotic vision takes over your life and you’re plagued by it until you’re cleansed."

We see that our lives are an ongoing drama, not a set table.

So what of the pursuit of happiness?

In the Founders day, happiness did not mean a smiling, peaceful warm feeling. It was derived from Aristotle's idea of eudaimonia, which means "good daimon" - 'daimon' meaning one's spirit, or soul, or one's essential self. It meant being who you really are.

And, if you read carefully, you see that our right is to the "pursuit", not the happiness.

Maybe our reinvention myth is built on a misunderstanding, a lie.

The lie is that we need to reinvent ourselves. The drama of our lives is the pursuit, to struggle against the lie that we need to reinvent ourselves, and embrace the terrifying challenge to be who we really are.

As for me:

I am starting a new job with responsibilities that I have never had before.

I am starting a leadership role in a religious organization, which I have never done before.

I am working with my co-blogger Hank B to take this blog to the next level.

I have way too much on my plate.

My daimon is very, very good.

1 comment:

  1. You go, Dave! Must be genetic. I have reinvented myself a few times...Life is called a journey for a reason and I believe we are all right where we are meant to be. For that moment anyway. Until the next right thing comes into our path.