The Art of Being Yourself

Luca Zanon

The poet May Sarton wrote a little poem called “Now I Become Myself.” It starts this way:

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there . . .

When are we really ourselves? When we’re five? When we’re 20? 35? 70? Are we ourselves when we are at our peak physical health? Doing something others consider important? We know that many of our character traits, our future selves, are formed before we are five years old. Is that when we are ourselves?

This is the question May Sarton asks in her poem. She concludes the poem:

Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!

Sarton’s point is this: we are not becoming ourselves. We already are ourselves. It’s the steady state of our being. But we have to stop; we have to stand still a moment to feel the “weight and density” of our being.

Sure, I know the drill: “But I don’t want to be myself now! Right now I’m a hot mess! I want to be . . . what? Impressive? Interesting? Charming? Muy suave? Full of savoir faire?

“But right now, this minute, I’m a little out of shape . . . and I’ve got this headache . . . ” Most of the time most of us feel like we’re in a state of being “dissolved and shaken.”

We have a sense of when Einstein was Einstein — that white, wild hair. Perhaps that’s why scholars look so hard to find more pictures of Emily Dickinson — what we have just doesn’t give us much of a sense of the poet. Emily isn’t Emily enough.

We become ourselves when we take the time “to stand still, to be here.” We become ourselves when we take the time to feel our “own weight and density.”

The patience and courage to be yourself . . .

We are learning that the sense of self is an illusion created in our brains. An illusion naturally selected to keep us alive. This survival mechanism worked well when humans were hunting and gathering or farming. This sense of self is easily confused by our contemporary surroundings.

For a number of years I lived at the eastern edge of the Chihauhuan Desert. The Chihauhuan Desert is a place lots of people go to find themselves. One of my artist friends used to say, “Do you realize how many true selves there are out here, waitin’ on those city folks to come out and find ‘em?”

Fact is, you don’t have to go to the desert and deal with rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas to find yourself. But I will tell you a story from there.

Once I was on a bus in Mexico. In the Sierra Madre (Occidental) mountains on a twisty, curvy two-lane road. Our bus driver had lost his left arm. Consequently, every time he shifted gears — which is something you have to do a lot in tall mountains — every time he shifted gears, he had to take his hand off the steering wheel. Added to this, he chain-smoked, which added another thing for his arm to do. Also, he crossed himself each time he saw a roadside alter, and there are lots of roadside alters around there, because lots of people have been killed on that road.

At one point the driver looked into his mirror and saw a woman who must of looked terrified. The driver said, — ¿Porqué estás tan nervioso? Crees que no te queda tiempo para encontrar tu sepultura?”

“Why are you nervous? Do you think you don’t have time to find your grave?”

It’s a good question to ask: Why so nervous? Because, as the bus driver knew, we do have the time to find our graves.

The courage and practice of being a self. It helps to stop a moment, feeling the “weight and density” of what often feels like a dissolving, shaking reality.

You really are you. You have time. ¿Porqué estás tan nervioso?

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