The Wonder of You
The Emergence of Self
One of the most beautiful pieces of writing I ever read is from Diana Gabaldon, from the book Dragonfly in Amber, where she wrote about the emergence of self.
“Babies are soft. Anyone looking at them can see the tender, fragile skin and know it for the rose-leaf softness that invites a finger’s touch. But when you live with them and love them, you feel the softness going inward, the round-cheeked flesh wobbly as custard, the boneless splay of the tiny hands. Their joints are melted rubber, and even when you kiss them hard, in the passion of loving their existence, your lips sink down and seem never to find bone. Holding them against you, they melt and mold, as though they might at any moment flow back into your body.
But from the very start, there is that small streak of steel within each child. That thing that says “I am,” and forms the core of personality.
In the second year, the bone hardens and the child stands upright, skull wide and solid, a helmet protecting the softness within. And “I am” grows, too. Looking at them, you can almost see it, sturdy as heartwood, glowing through the translucent flesh.
The bones of the face emerge at six, and the soul within is fixed at seven. The process of encapsulation goes on, to reach its peak in the glossy shell of adolescence, when all softness then is hidden under the nacreous layers of the multiple new personalities that teenagers try on to guard themselves.
In the next years, the hardening spreads from the center, as one finds and fixes the facets of the soul, until “I am” is set, delicate and detailed as an insect in amber.”
― Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber
Who Are You?
If someone else had to define you what would they say about you? What are your defining qualities?
Would it be what you have done for another? How you made them feel? What your role is in their life (mother, lover, daughter)?
Who and what is your, “I Am?”
The Emergence of ‘Me’ After 30 Years
For me, my “I Am” has changed so much over the years due to shifting of my childhood religious belief away from a very rigid belief system to something more open and fluid.
The change impacted all aspects of “me” as it opened up music, dance, celebration and association with a world and people that had previously been closed off.
Imagining me as a Baby
It is hard to look back and think of me as a baby with my mother when she must have loved, nurtured and held me against herself.
My mother cut me off and has shunned me for over twenty years now. This happened when I left the religion of my childhood (Jehovah’s Witnesses).
Of course, no-one has conscious memories of this time, but I realize that my mother must have held onto me, held my softness against herself, breathed in my baby smell, and delighted in the inherent wonder and curiosity of “What will this child be?” and “Who will this child become?”
I grieve for how the reality of me, being separate and different to herself, created the division that exists between us today.
The emergence of my self, finally in my early 30s, when I was able to allow the expression of my thoughts, and my beliefs and my longings to eventually break out the shell of conformity and fear (and that I knew would lead to expulsion from my family, friends, and community) has been life-changing.
Being able to be ‘me’ has not made life easier.
In many ways, life has gotten harder.
I no longer have my mother, my lifelong friends I had for over 30 years and inclusion in family events.
But I am not living a lie.
The emergence of myself has been freeing in the sense I was finally able to “try on different hats” and different ways of being until I discovered what I liked, what I believed and what was uniquely me, that makes me different to all around me.
In the finding of what makes me unique, I have also discovered how alike I am to others.
I am “alike” in my vulnerability, in my fears, and insecurities and in my struggles to get through in this arena we call “life.”
Analyzing Why I Never Knew Who I Was Until Now
I look at my grandson who is only two and a half months old. What is most delightful about the current age where he is at, is the emergence of imitative smiles and chuckles, as he responds to the smiling faces gazing adoringly at him. He also has started poking out his tongue in response to faces poking out their tongues at him.
How long will an adult spend poking out their tongue at a baby to get him to imitate them, and then scream in delight when he does so?
Everyone crowds around to look and aahs and oohs in delight when the baby copies!
How much we as humans LOVE it when we see a baby start to act LIKE US.
We seem them copying and responding and in return, our hearts swell, and we want to teach them more and get them to respond in like manner.
And then soon enough, as every parent knows there comes the time described as “the terrible twos.” Why is it described in this way?
Because instead of copying, the emerging sense of the child as a separate entity to their parents, leads to the child expressing that individuality in mostly defiant ways or opposition to their parents.
Why Defiance in a Two-Year-old is a Good Thing
Resistance and opposition is a GOOD thing.
It is only by saying NO to a parent’s will, that a child can find and discover what YES means for them.
Later on, they may confirm or decide that the parents no and their no are the same, but first, they must say NO to determine that and come to that conclusion.
This is a process that starts around the age of two and can carry on over a lifetime.
We want our child/children to be themselves, to find their path, and to be stable and secure in their knowledge of who they are.
But the process that it takes for them to do so is not so pleasant for parents!
If we punish or are over punitive when children are learning to find delight in their separateness, then we risk creating a situation where a child will conform out of fear and may take decades (if at all) before they are willing to take risks and discover WHO they are.
This can lead to a sense of emptiness, or an emotional hole, as a child grows into an adult who never has been able to feel SOLID in who they are, as they have never been given a chance to explore WHO they are, and feel confident, secure and stable in that knowledge.
For myself, my mother (and there is no blame being apportioned here) repeatedly told me that she felt she was in a “battle of wills” with me as a toddler and she had to “win” and “break my will” if she was to bring up a child who would be obedient to parents and to God.
This “breaking of my will” through harsh discipline led to me losing all sense of who I was as all was suppressed in the desire to conform and not be punished.
What it Takes to Discover Who You Are
To find out who you are, means you have to find out:
- what you like or dislike
- and the process of this can be fraught with danger, rejection, and emotional pain.
In finding out WHAT we like — we can, if we are not careful, isolate all those who DISLIKE what we like.
We may find ourselves in heated discussions with people we love who oppose our view.
We come up against ‘them’ and ‘us’ concepts, against issues of belonging, and group dynamics and may find ourselves naturally gravitating towards those who think and feel the same as us.
The concepts of ‘group think’ and confirmation bias can kick in as we align ourselves FOR something and AGAINST other things.
For some teenagers and adults (whose emergence of self occurs later in life) the WAY we go about dealing with differences and HOW we go about integrating what we like and dislike into our concept of self and life can dramatically affect our relationships with friends and family and community.
This is why teenage years are so often fraught with conflict between parents and their young emerging adults.
Although teenagers are great at being driven to “try” things to see if they like them (often to the dismay of their parents) they are not that great at negotiating or being diplomatic.
This is what can lead to conflict.
For teenagers like myself growing up in strict religious families, suppression of self can lead to complete compliance with parents and the illusion both to yourself and others that you have adopted all your parents beliefs as your own, when in fact, out of fear, you have never tried to challenge or look at anything different to see if they suit better.
It was not until years later, that I looked at what I thought I believed up until then, and realized there were other ways to interpret the world and how to behave in the world that I had never considered.
Patience, Tolerance, and Love
So for parents with children aged in their toddler years (terrible twos) or teenage years take comfort in the fact that these are vital and important stages of development for your child to grow strong and be comfortable in WHO they are.
The emergence of self, like a caterpillar to a butterfly is tumultuous, involves changes and processes of change that at times makes our child unrecognizable to us (and to themselves) and needs support for them to emerge with as little scarring as possible.
For many adults who never fully got to go through these developmental changes effectively a so-called ‘crises’ can emerge in middle age where someone suddenly feels angst, depression, and a sense of meaninglessness connected to everything in their life.
They may cast off old secure ways of being, and try on things that appear entirely out of character.
Depending on how they negotiate this time, friendships and family connections can be shattered due to impulsivity and decisions made that appear selfish and insensitive to others.
It is common enough to happen with people at this time in their life that it has been named as a “middle-aged crises.”
I find it interesting for myself that my questioning and introspection of previously held beliefs started to occur in my early 30s. There were a number of triggering factors that led to this, but I had reached a stage in my own maturity that the cost of conformity and non-questioning was greater to hold onto than the desire to find out for myself what other options there were I had never considered as perhaps being true for me.
A Lifetime Spent Finding ‘Self’
It appears to be that from birth to death we each individually are on a path that attempts to define who WE are in connection with all other humans around us and within ourselves.
For some of us the attempt happens quite smoothly and some clearly “know” what they will do and be and who they are from a very young age, and do not deviate.
Some families are more skilled at supporting and accepting and tolerating change and difference, and so there is less rejection and condemnation from within when members suddenly try something new or act very different.
For other families, especially if there are rigid and defined views of what is acceptable or not, the changes can be frightening, and dramatic and there can be punitive actions or even expulsion as parents and other family members (who find change personally threatening and scary) seek to force their will on another.
But this process of discovering who we are is vitally important.
Why Being True to Oneself is so Important
It has led to people undertaking quests and undergoing adventures that have led to spiritual revolutions, political revolutions, and transformations within society.
It all has first started though, with transformation, self-awareness and a burgeoning defined and robust sense of self and belief from within an INDIVIDUAL.
Even if an individual discovering their true self does not bring about societal change, the change within that individual in their peace of mind, and their ability to “feel” at home in their own body, and feel a sense of strength and surety in their own mind and decisions, is often worth the sacrifice of family and community that may occur due to taking a stand. Hopefully though the emergence of self even at later stages of life, does not lead to expulsion from family or community.
For myself, I have experienced great loss through the emergence of my true self, but I am gaining individual strength and a feeling of being “solid and real” I never felt previously and I am still on the journey to find my own “tribe” of people with similar values and beliefs where I feel I belong.
So next time your child throws their food on the floor, or does not want to wear the outfit YOU have picked for them that day, smile, and think that you have a potentially strong leader on your hands who is going to revolutionize the world!
Or, at the very least a child who will go out into the world wearing a pink skirt and striped leggings and a winter jumper in the middle of summer, which will revolutionize how the other kids want to dress at kindy.
Hats off to that!