How to Be Ourselves When We Don’t Know Who We Are: On the Pain and Beauty of Becoming

I moved around a lot when I was young, and one of the hardest things for me about moving was starting a new school. Just like any other teenager, I was really concerned that the kids at my new school like me, and I worried about making mistakes or saying stupid things or not knowing how to act in my new environment. I desperately wanted someone to tell me what I should do or how I should be so that everything would be okay. Often when I was searching for advice in these times, someone would tell me “Just be yourself”. I always found this advice so confusing and frustrating because I felt like it meant that somewhere in myself, I was fully formed and already wonderful and great—I just had to find this self, and all would be okay. I didn’t know where this self was, and to be honest, I didn’t really believe it existed. The self I knew was confused, timid, uncertain, full of ignorance about the world.

A few summers ago, I took up the hobby of flower gardening, and to my surprise, it actually taught me a great deal about what it means to be myself. Here is the amazing thing about flowers. Flowers are so beautiful and radiant and captivating, and they do all of this without really trying. I mean, flowers do not run around frantically worrying, or asking advice, or reading books about how they should be. Flowers just are, day by day and minute by minute. They take in the sun, the soil, and water that is given. They respond gently and naturally, and as they do, they are beautiful. This does not mean that every second of a flower’s life is perfect. Sometimes get too hot, and they wilt. Sometime flowers are bent by the wind and rain. Sometimes flowers get blight or fungus or have bugs chew holes in them. But flowers also have this amazing healing capacity and continually strive to be flowers through all of this. It is in their natural response to life and their will to flowerness (so to speak) that they are beautiful.

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Flowers suggest to us, I think, how we might go about living our lives. We spend a lot of time worrying about the exact right thing to do or to be. I believe, however, that rather than worrying about these things, we need to just focus on gently being a human in our unique world, much like the flower works on being a flower. This means that each day, we live our lives, take in what comes our way, both the good and the bad, and we respond to it with patience, courage, persistence, with love. All of these traits are unique human traits, and they are also the best human traits. As we respond to the world in this way, we naturally begin to express our unique and beautiful human potential.

This makes me think of my mom, who is one of the most inspiring people in my life. When my mom was twenty, she and my dad were in a serious car accident that left her permanently paralyzed and in a wheelchair. If someone had told my mom “Just be yourself” at this point in her life, I think this would have been generally unhelpful advice. Who my mom was had radically and irrevocably altered. What she would become was a completely unknown, at least to her. Mom will tell you that in the days and weeks that followed her accident while she was in the hospital, she often wanted to give up. She credits her faith in God and the encouragement of some other folks that had been in severe accidents with helping her to have faith and hope. Mom kept going, learned how to live her life and pursue her dreams from a wheelchair, and in doing so my mom’s beautiful and unique potential unfolded. She did not discover some fully-formed version of herself; rather, she responded to the beauty and pain in her life with faith, hope, love, courage, and patience. She lived into who she was, and she is still doing that today.

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This is a picture of my mom and dad shortly after their car accident.

The Dao De Jing suggests to us that life contains both joy and sadness, beauty and ugliness, elation and tragedy. We often want to cling to the good parts of life, but the Dao suggests that in this clinging, we create imbalances and further problems.[1] Instead of running from the bad parts of life or clinging only to the good, the Dao suggest that we need to accept all of life and hold to the three treasures of compassion, simplicity and humility.[2] I think the Bible makes a similar point when it suggests to us that everyone faces trials and difficult times, and it is in these very times that we must seek wisdom[3], and as we do, we walk in the spirit which is the path of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.[4] When we do this, we become wise, mature, beautiful, and strong.

I think all of this suggests what it means to be our self. We are never fully-formed individuals. Rather, we are individuals in the process of becoming. It is not important that we know exactly how to act or what to say at each moment. Rather, it is important that we live our lives. To do this, we need to meet each day and whatever comes to us with the intention of acting in compassion and wisdom. When we do this, our unique expression of the human spirit blossoms, and we give beauty to the world.

In one way, the phrase “Just be yourself” is both the worst and the best advice. It is the worst advice if we think that who we are is a fully formed, prior and perfect self we must discover somewhere inside us. It is the best advice if we realize that being our selves means that we respond to our unique lives in a beautiful human way that allows our individuality to emerge. As we do this, we will experience both joy and sadness, beauty and ugliness, elation and tragedy. All of this is normal, and it is not as important what happens to us and the mistakes we make. It is much more important how we respond to what comes our way. The next time someone asks for advice about how to be or what to do in a certain situation, I think I will say, “It is beautiful and painful to live into who you are. You are going to make it, and I am here to love and listen.” It is not quite as catchy but hopefully more helpful.

[1] In Book One, Chapter Two of the DaoDeJing, Laozi writes, “Everyone knows that when the beautiful strives to be beautiful it is repulsive. Everyone knows that when the good strives to be good it is no good. And so, to have and to lack generate each other. Difficult and easy give form to each other. High and low incline into each other. Before and after follow each other”. (Laozi. DaoDeJing. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, ed. Hackett Publishing, Co. Indianapolis, IN: 2001.

[2] Ibid, Book One, Chapter sixty-seven

[3] James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

[4] Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

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