Have you ever thought about what it means to lose yourself? Or, the opposite, to find yourself? What do those things even mean?
These past two years, I have been losing myself. That statement sounds terrifying to the modern sensibility. The culture of today is built upon the parlance of “finding oneself.” Perhaps that means traveling to some distant place in India, moving to another state in the country, or simply pursuing a different path in life. Wherever you go, finding yourself means coming to a place of finding self-fulfillment. Finding yourself is the goal, and those mired down in daily living unable to attain the place of self-actualization are less for it. So the narrative goes. In this place the pronouncement of “losing oneself” sounds like a death knell. It sounds like what middle aged people do before they whimper off into the sunset of old age.
Is it true?
I admit losing oneself is not all sunshine and picnics. The metaphysical reality comes with many earthy sensations, some more easily named than others. Altogether it is discomforting. But I hold it is a far better path than the vision of bliss championed in the quest of finding oneself.
This is not the first time I have lost myself. When I left home to care for my grandparents–that was another occasion which comes to mind. I lost myself then, and again when my grandpa died. And I suppose I lost myself when I had to leave childhood behind and figure out what it meant for me to be an adult. They were all painful times, each in different ways, each a different dying, a different birth. Perhaps there are others which don’t come so easily to mind.
Losing myself happens in those places and times where who I am comes unmoored. Who I was before can’t exist unchanged in the future I find myself. I no longer can be who I was, but who I am becoming (or ought to be) is not clear. I’ve lost my past self, and it feels a bit like dying, a bit like loneliness (for the old self was the closest friend), and much like being lost. The old home of body and mind is gone. I am cast out, and new realities don’t immediately become a new skin and familiar home.
When I left home and became caregiver for my grandparents it was a new role and a new place in life. It required different priorities from me, a different outlook on life, different expectations. Disorienting is a word which fits the experience, a word that almost feels too small. That life change left me staggered, but I met the occasion and grew into it until Caregiver was a name which fit me like a glove. Then that ended, and I lost myself again. Ironic how what I struggled to accept became a disaster to lose. Time to learn what it meant to be a once-but-no-longer-caregiver. So it goes, time and again.
I don’t like losing myself. I like comfortable familiarity, old houses with those worn paths of habitual use. But time pushes onward and brings its change. I feel like I have already done far more losing of myself in life than I would ever want. However, I am coming to understand that losing myself is one of the most important (if most uncomfortable) things to happen in life. It is in the dying of the old self, the losing of the past shell, that the living is found. When I have lost myself, there I have grown.
As a culture there is a lot of shiny talk about “finding oneself,” the activity with self at the center, and one’s own sense of fullness–whatever is required to reach that place. For certain finding oneself feels like a grand thing–at least, if it lives up to the hype. By contrast, losing oneself feels emptying, frightening, and exhausting. Losing oneself is not an enjoyable activity. No wonder the narrative of our age is about finding oneself.
But the better path is often the disguised one, hidden behind the thorns. I am convinced “finding oneself” is a mirage–a delight at first, perhaps, but ultimately a more empty and lonely place where you are the aim and desire of your own existence. What has true worth has great cost, and one must become lost to find. Every time I have lost myself it has been hard, but in the long journey through lostness I have come out wiser, more mature. A bit less, just a bit less, someone living just for himself. When I lose myself I come out not quite who I was before, and better for it.
Marriage, and becoming a father, have been the occasions of this most recent losing of myself. These life changing events have reoriented my life in ways easy to conceptualize in words, but far harder to discover in all the warp and woof of reality. I can’t live as a married man and father as I did as a single man. An observation so simple it seems almost trite, but the reality of losing who I was as a single person leaves me trying to find what it means to be a new man–in priorities, life rhythm, hopes, ambitions, and breath. Life simply isn’t the same in this new place–obvious in the declaration, and yet in the details wholly without a map. How we can talk and think about what it means to be married doesn’t account for how one must breathe differently.
I know what my role is and means from the outside, for I have seen my father and watched him as a husband. But we each must make it our own in the living of it, and I find the place full of contradictions–easy and hard, natural and alien. But most of all this is a way of living which is different from who or what I was. On an existential level it can feel hard and strange to orient myself.
I can accept the idea that life is different easily enough. It is the whole point of marriage, that difference. Harder for me is accepting how long it takes to discover and grow into the new reality. I can be thoughtful of my other half on occasion, only to realize that doesn’t begin to grasp the nuance of wedded reality. It is a different breathing.
I am not surprised that life is different–who doesn’t assent to this truth in their thoughts–but I wanted to find the comfortable place of knowing my new self in six months. Instead, I’m still finding my way to feeling natural in the rhythm of not being my own person. And, I suppose, I will be finding my way for some time to come. The best things take the longest to grow into, and the more you lose yourself, the greater the thing you find.
There is comfort in having lost myself before, and learned what was on the other side of those painful journeys. In the uncertain sea of no longer having my old skin to wear–one worn some thirty and more years of my life–I remember in all the losing of myself I have known in my life, it has come with the discovery of something better, richer. It is a good thing to remember while on the journey. I can look with that same expectation as I go today.