Sitting at gate B18 at Midway, I was thinking about how I’ve never had anybody close to me die. I mean, my mom’s mom and dad died when I was a kid, but both of my father’s parents died before I was born. A teenager I didn’t know died in a drunk driving accident when I was in high school and the closest I ever got to knowing him is I was in a few theatrical productions with his sister who went to one of the three all-girls high schools in Omaha. Since I went to the only all-boys high school in town, I of course had the pick of the litter when it came to the myriad options of dating possibilities. You had the Sisters of Mary, the students of which were most akin to most of the boys at my school, in addition to the school’s location being just down the road from mine. You had the Sisters of Mercy, who were sort of considered the “ghetto fabulous” girls and to the left of the Sisters of Mary girls in that they were more working-class girls and were notorious for being “easy.” Then there were the Sisters of Mary Magdalene girls, who were much more to the right of the spectrum with regard to their parental income level as well as tautness of their chastity belts.
None of which mattered a lick for me as I had the social aptitude of a spoiled avocado and the romantic grace of a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 passenger plane.
At 43, I’ve never experienced real grief at the loss of another person. I have, however, experienced real grief at the loss of myself.
I’ve wondered a lot lately whether I’ve ever really, truly known what it is like to be, well, me. I had my first drink when I was 15 and I started smoking pot when I was 16. I experimented with a few different things along the way, but it was mostly “just enough” pot and “just enough” booze to get the job done until I eliminated pot completely, switched to booze alone, then got completely sober. Somewhere in that 25 cent history is the traumatic brain injury.
So … who am I? Am I the kid that got drunk for the first time in my parents’ basement with my best friend? Am I the teenager who got stoned for the first time in his friend’s car using a pop-can pipe and was yelling at the top of his lungs when he, in what he perceived to be a conversational tone until his friends told him to stop yelling or someone would catch them in the elementary school parking lot, asked them if they wanted to smoke more pot (I swear, it was a scene right outta Roadtrip)? Am I the stuttering, scatter-brained neurological train wreck that was rolled out of the hospital 14 years ago after brain surgery? Am I the sober, TBI-survivor writing this?
I think I am all of these and I am none of these. The Buddhist concept of “No Self” refers to the fact that, not only are we not the sum of our parts because our parts change moment to moment, we are also not how others perceive us or how we perceive others because in a very literal sense, everything (and I mean everything) in this world is different than it was even a nanosecond ago. Whether you use nanoseconds or millennia, everything single thing on earth is different to some degree, no matter how minute than it was only a moment ago.
And yet, somehow, in this culture, in this society, in this America we live in now, it’s like you’re not allowed to be different than you were a moment ago. You’re not allowed to grow. You’re not allowed to think different things than you did last month or last year or last decade. And if you do, you’re “called out” on it.
How this culture got to a point where someone gets “called out” and punished rather than encouraged to grow is beyond me. More than that, we’re not encouraged to, evolutionarily, integrate more and more information as we come across it and integrate it into our operating system. Quite the opposite, in fact. We expect each other to operate within the same structural parameters we had whenever one individual person (and, even more absurdly, this is on a person-by-person basis) happen to become aware of our existence. We seem to expect more of our software packages and smartphones than we do of each other. Maybe that’s why our brains have adapted to give us the toke off the dopamine pipe we get when we engage with these things in the first place.
Not Self. Am I the person I once was when I was 5/10/20/40 years old? Yes and No. Are you? No and yes.