Want what you have. Be who you are. Do what you can.
There is a game I like to play when I’m in line at the grocery store. I check out the contents of people’s carts and make up stories about their lives. I build fantasy meals in my head and imagine who my fellow shoppers will be serving them to. I can create an entire life story out of a box of organic lettuce and a piece of cheese. I see objects, and I imbue them with meaning and with that meaning, I create a story about someone’s life.
In my world, these people will live on in their fictional incarnations. It doesn’t matter why one woman was really buying tomatoes and basil, in my head she is off to make her grandmother’s special spaghetti sauce to woo her new love. And that man buying two bottles of wine and a cheese tray? He’s on his way to a party at his boss’s house, hoping to impress. I will never meet these people, I’ll never know what the real stories behind their shopping purchases were. They live in my head as I imagine them to be, not as who they really are.
We don’t just do this with strangers. Our world is full of people who we assume behave in particular ways, ways that match our expectations not their realities. These are the actors in our own personal dramas. We are rarely inclined to ascribe gentle motivations.
It can be a small. When you are driving and someone cuts you off, whose first thought is: well, maybe they didn’t see me? Or maybe they were in a rush because of a horrible emergency and they absolutely need to be somewhere as quickly as possible? No, we think these things when we behave badly in traffic, but not about other people. They are clearly rude, rude people who should never have been granted a driver’s license. Little things, and our opinions of the people around us sour.
Think about your day. Think about all of the little aggravations, snubs and rudeness that piles up. Imagine, for a moment, that there are explanations behind everyone of those small moments. Yes, people do not always behave the way we should, or we wish we had, but our narration tends to make it worse, not better.
We go through our lives, enacting our own little dramas, with ourselves as the leads and everyone else a bit player, whose story only matters in the way that it intersects with our own, and it is fine. It isn’t great, it isn’t perfect, but we make do with our incomplete truth.
As we tell stories about other people’s lives we tell stories about our own, and we…are not always reliable narrators. We are just as apt to be confused about our own motivations and behaviors as we are others – and we start early.
When I was in high school, I fell in love with Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut’s book about espionage in World War II. The tagline to this odd little book is: Be careful who you pretend to be, because in the end, that’s who you are. Now, in a novella about war and spies, this makes sense. But to a teenager, it means so much more.
When we are teenagers, we are just starting to figure out who we are, and often that person is miles away from the person we think we should be. It is in this whirlwind of emotions and insecurity and hormones that we start to learn to tell a false story, to try to be someone we are not. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but we start to learn to smooth off our edges. To connect the dots of our lives the way that we think people expect them to be connected. Or in the way that makes narrative sense.
As we get older our need to fit a certain type lessons. But like so many behaviors learned in high school, the need to be the person you are expected to be, the person you have come to expect yourself to be, lingers. Our narrative becomes subtler than the one we told as teenagers, when conformity, even in the margins, was paramount. Still, we follow the old patterns. The longer we tell ourselves we are one way, the more we start to believe it.
Be careful who you pretend to be, because in the end, that’s who you are.
It is a warning. You will become the person you say you are, so you better be sure it’s the person you want to be. Every moment, every decision, every interaction, helps to shape what sort of story our lives will tell. In our choices, we are becoming ourselves. We are creating our reality and our legacy.
So a warning is appropriate, but that is not all it is. If we can become someone we never meant to be, we can also move towards the person we most want to be. We can tell a different story about our lives, we can make different decisions. We can learn to be the people we are, not the people we wish we were.
We can be who we are.