Finding Me

Since early childhood, I have wanted to have a pair of cowboy boots. Was it my love of cowboy movies as a child? The look of the tall cowboys in their boots? To me, I think it was the overall look, the swagger of walking in them, the admiration (in my mind) from others when seeing me in my boots. Alas, it was not to happen; boots were just too expensive for my parents to invest in them when what I really needed was a pair of good, reliable shoes for school (Yes, Buster Brown shoes, I’m talking about you.)

Years passed. As an adult, I still had that desire for cowboy boots and, after a few hints, I received a beautiful pair of boots at age 40 to fulfill my dreams of enjoying wearing them and knowing how good I would look in them. My wish had been finally granted. It was a happy morning that I put the boots on.

Well, I tried to put the boots on. Boots are tight, aren’t they? Getting them on took a lot of pulling and yanking, not at all like when the cowboys in the movies do it. And walking itself was now a task requiring concentration, no longer something I did without thinking.

Eventually, the boots connected and I found that walking was a new skill to learn. The walking skill I had learned at a young age did not require coordinating the lifting and placement of boots that kept me standing an inch higher. On my first walk in the neighborhood, I noticed people stared at my boots first and then at me. A few even questioned whether I had spent my youth on a ranch or elsewhere in the west. And suddenly, it hit me: I didn’t belong in these boots. No ranch, no cattle, no horse, no saddle, not even a good cowboy hat. There was nothing wrong with the boots, but they were not ME. I found them uncomfortable, difficult to put on and off, clumsy whenever I needed to stoop to pick something up, and unwieldy when sitting. The boots just were not who I was. The boots attracted attention, and attention is something I generally avoid. I got what I wanted, but nothing I needed.

That experience brought back memories of a similar event of my youth when I was in junior high school. I had seen Marlon Brando in the movie, The Wild One, and wanted a motorcycle jacket as he had worn: black, several zippers, and lots of metal buttons on the coat and collar. Yes, I would look good in that. Unfortunately, such a leather jacket was far beyond the family budget’s ability, but then, due to an unfortunate tragedy, I was given such a jacket when its owner died. Yes, I was thrilled, and it was a genuine Harley-Davidson jacket—the real thing. I wore it around our house all weekend, anxious to wear it to school. And then Monday came.

Yes, what had happened with the boots was a repeat of what happened with that jacket. Friends stared at me when I arrived. Stared. Fortunately, a couple of close friends approached me, whispering, “David, what are you doing? You are not that jacket and it is doing you no favors.” And they were right: I had wanted the jacket, but the jacket did not represent ME; it was not showing who I was. My search to quickly define who I was had failed. A search that continued into my future.

Life continued with many such experiences as I tried to capsulize who I was, and a later example was my desire for a trumpet. As a child, I had wanted to learn to play the trumpet but was steered to the trombone because my parents said my lips were too fat to play the trumpet. Yes, my lips were too fat.  

If you’ve figured that I eventually received a trumpet, you are correct; my dear wife and son gave me one as a gift and I was thrilled. Well, thrilled until I attempted to play it. Trumpets, I discovered, are difficult to play. Just getting a sound from it requires work. But that wasn’t the real problem: the problem that I discovered was my impatience on the realization that learning to playing the trumpet would easily take decades, decades I didn’t want to commit since I had no clue on why I wanted it.

Once I had the trumpet, I was faced with assessing my purpose. Did I want to play it? Or did I just want to own it? Or did I think that, by owning it, my dreams from youth would be magically satisfied? Once again, I found that I was chasing the discovery of me, only to fall short. I had asked for a trumpet, had received a trumpet, and knew I had not received whatever it was for which I searched.

The real problem? I was seeking to own items by which I would be defined. But that is only ownership, not a definition of a person. Unfortunately, that illness affects so many of us. We buy an item, join a club, or otherwise identify ourselves with a larger concept or symbol and hope that doing that will further define who we are. But the opposite is what happens.

Consider the person who wants to be unique by owning a motorcycle (or similar item that interests only a minority of the population). What happens is that the person’s identity becomes modified by the motorcycle, reducing the identity of the person to be subordinate to the motorcycle. Carry that idea further by then buying brand-specific motorcycle clothing and going for rides with groups of motorcyclists and a person’s identity is wiped away, blurring into being just a piece of the larger entity, not at all the uniqueness sought by the rider. Owning a motorcycle (or other item) is one thing; identifying with it is quite another.

That motorcycle example? It happened to me and to others I know. Despite my love of motorcycles, I found that people began to identify me differently, seeing only that part of who I was. And I didn’t like it; there was so much more to me than that. But many do like it. Look through photos on a social media platform, such as Facebook, and you will see many photos of persons posing with their motorcycle, sports car, convertible or boat. This, because they identify with these symbols and want the excitement and allure of those symbols to transfer to themselves. This works, but narrows the image of the person, causing viewers and friends to focus more on the accompanying symbol instead of on the person. We all are more complex than that.

Instead of looking inward at ourselves to discover who we are, we look outward and then try to fit into some lifestyle that we feel is what we want. That never works. It was only when I stopped comparing myself to the world that I began to see myself, to understand that I am special, if only to me. We are not defined by what we wear or what we own or by our identity with others. No, we are defined by our beliefs and our actions. Nothing else counts. How I appear to others may influence whether they accept me into their lives or discussions, but that does not relate to who I am; it only relates to the degree to which I seek to influence others. Have I found myself? It’s a lifelong mission; it’s called life.

It’s Not About You

One of my favorite, often-read books, is The Four Agreements, by M. Ruiz. A major reason that I like the book is that the author has simplified the complexity of knowing oneself into four simple statements to accept and make part of one’s approach to life. Of the four, the one agreement that has most affected my outlook on life is the second one: Don’t Take Anything Personally.

Initially, that agreement may seem trite, even overly simplistic on a complex issue. It may even cause one to think that the agreement avoids taking ownership of criticisms, a refusal to face life’s harder issues. But it’s not that at all. The agreement is a reflection that what others say is always more about them than you. I have grown from that agreement to realize that both criticisms and compliments are never personal. I now accept that when a person offers criticism, the criticism is a reflection on the individual’s self-perception of the topic at hand and a personal dissatisfaction that my view is different; my view on the topic failed to reassure the other person of his/her belief.

Likewise, I now understand that compliments also reflect the speaker of the compliment and not the receiver. When I tell you that I like you (or that I think you look handsome or pretty, or that I think you’re intelligent, or whatever), what I am really stating is that I want you to like me and, by doing so, to increase my own self-awareness of who I am and to provide me with needed companionship or awareness. Think about that. Whenever you make a positive statement to another, you are likely telling them what they already know, but that isn’t your real intent: your intent is to be recognized by the other person. When we compliment people, we want them to know the compliment came from us: that’s the real message.

This awareness has sustained me for the two decades since I first read the book, yet I have discovered there is a corollary: No One Cares About You. That hurts, doesn’t it? We have an inner need to be liked, yet we have just proved that no one does; others care about themselves and only of us as we relate to them. On first discovering this, we may feel depression, confirmation that we are not desirable, an acknowledgment of one of our deepest fears.

That was my first thought on realizing the corollary, yet the strength comes from the agreement itself: one should not take it personally. Life is a struggle for all of us and our first priority is about ourselves, whether we acknowledge it or not. We find proof of the corollary when we consider what people experience in life-changing events, such as divorce or the death of another person. The emotions being felt are because we no longer are receiving the reassurance that the other person was providing to us. All along, it was really about us. We mourn their death or separation from us, but it is how that action affects our view of ourselves that is our concern.

Is there strength to come from this? Yes, definitely. We, alone, are accountable for how we view this one life, and this knowledge strengthens our power in our lives. What we think, what we do, are reflections of who we are. We take strength in this, and this strength empowers us to accept and build on the relationships in our lives. A quote to guide us:

“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Further strength in this life comes also from those other three agreements from the book: Be Impeccable with Your Word, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best. Read the book; you’ll enjoy it. I did.