My whole adult life I’ve been under the impression that we can create the self we want to be. Through meditation, art, therapy, reading, journal writing, habitual self-reflection and other disciplines, we can choose our image of the perfected self and eventually inhabit that person we envision. Now I’m not so sure.
The fact that we keep bumping into the same old limitations and disappointments with ourselves decade after decade suggests that there is some hard-wiring at work in our personality. Whether from genetics or some soul’s destiny or just plain orneriness of our character, there are distinct limits to how much we can change. No matter what your transformation program, you just can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. We can change and should strive to change, but within a pretty small margin. We can modify, we can temper, we can occasionally learn a lesson that we don’t repeat over and over again, but let’s lower the bar here and consider this radical idea— accepting the way we’re put together and even stop apologizing for it.
For example, I predictably (but also am always surprised anew) hit a habitual wall I call “The Cazadero Syndrome.” A few lifetimes ago, I worked at Cazadero Music Camp and felt like it was the perfect fit for me— doing music with groups of kids out under the redwoods. And in many ways it was. But session after session, when it came time for the kids to board the buses, I noticed how they hugged certain teachers they made a deep connection with— and I was never one of them. Same thing at my school as the 8th graders run past me getting a teacher to sign their yearbook. What’s going on here?
Well, I have lots of ideas. I’m more of a forest than a trees guy, creating joyful events with large groups, but not always making the personal one-on-one connection. I don’t hang out casually with kids at recess, rarely talk about the latest hit song or cool movie with them, sincerely love them, but from a distance. (Some of this also comes from being 50 years older than the average middle schooler!) When the alums come back to visit, I’m always happy to see them and greet them warmly, but conversation usually stops after the first hello. What’s going on here? And why does it bother me?
On some level, it’s just the way I’m put together. Why fight it? Doesn’t hurt anybody (except me sometimes). It might be inextricably tied with the writer side of myself, that fellow whose habit of thought necessarily puts a distance between myself and a group. That part of me sometimes earns admiration or respect from others, but doesn't generate the warm fuzzy feeling that makes the parting hard when the buses pull up.
One stragey is to put yet more distance and comment to myself, “Ah ha. There you are again. My old friend The Cazadero Syndrome.” Another is to stand with Popeye and say with the full measure of my conviction, “I yam what I yam!” But here I go again, projecting the self I want to be without much evidence that I’ll actually ever be it. I think the best we can hope for is an acceptance of our flawed self side-by-side with a determination to improve by inches instead of miles. As Suzuki-Roshi so wisely said it:
“We are perfect as we are. But we could all stand a little improvement.”