“You learn in creative life that there are so many separate selves; no one who writes creatively hasn’t felt that.” -Jeanette Winterson in The Guardian, May 2004
“Most of us don’t live our lives with one integrated self that meets the world. We’re a whole bunch of selves.” -Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job
Some months ago, I talked with two of my favorite students about identity. It’s the kind of conversation I’ve gone back to again and again, over wine, over a campfire, over cookies. Perhaps a lot of us have. In any case, my students maintained that they were searching for a “real self.” They said that lots of the people around them in high school “didn’t know who they were.” They themselves didn’t know, but they hoped that, with kindness and awareness and courage, they would figure it out.
I would have said many of the same things at 17, but looking at them now, I wonder if those thoughts are true. Or maybe I wonder if they’re that important. Sure, I’ve “faked” things–faked interest, faked kindness, faked myself. These counterfeits never seem to have that much depth, that much current, that much punch, so I think it’s worth avoiding them. On the other hand, I am different in different situations. In some moments, the group around me seems to need someone loud, someone to pull them together. In other moments, the person in front of me seems to need someone quiet, someone to listen. In some moments, faced with the horrors I see, I’m sad–sad to a point where sadness seems like me. In other moments the world laughs like sparkling water and I laugh with it. Sometimes I’m still, and watching the leaves fall is all I want to do. Sometimes I’m moving, and every new step is another thrill.
Growing up, I learned (and thought) that my “real self” was something unique, something important, something the world should make space for. Right now, I wonder if the plurality in me–the fact of having different faces–is a sign of richness, not a sign of confusion. I wonder if there is really one me. There certainly seem to be different adventures, different friends, different possibilities. Perhaps it’s a sign of wisdom to be the person that a moment needs–not forever, not finally, but firmly and for now.