Last night I was looking for something to do while cleaning my room, something that wouldn’t wake the boys. I downloaded row after row of podcasts to my personal music device from the four programs I subscribe to – The Moth, Fresh Air, This American Life, and Radiolab – detached the player, and began listening. My friend Christian is always after me to listen to his favorite, Radiolab, so I started with “Words.”
In the second segment of the podcast – A World Without Words – a neuroanatomist named Jill Bolte Taylor talks about the intersection of memory, personality, and language:
Language is an ongoing information processing. It’s the constant reminder – ‘I Am.’ This is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs. I am an individual. I am a single, I am a solid, I am separate from you.
When I heard those words I had been struggling with time and with motivation for several days, waking late and shuddering through simple tasks with difficulty. I would think to myself “I need to accomplish this task” and set a time to begin, and then the time would come and I’d extend the deadline out a little bit further. I was tired all the time. I was irritable. I could not write with any fluency.
But as I stood in the kitchen, running my oiled fingers over the seal on my mother’s ponderous metal canner, lifting jars out of the acrid vinegar, a thought clicked into place:
I am a narrative and nothing else. I am all of the things I tell myself about who I am, my strengths and my weaknesses. I am building myself from moment to moment.
I had told myself that I was bad at organization. I had told myself I was frustrated by responsibility, that I couldn’t adhere to deadlines, that I was unclever at life. I had sat at my computer trying to break myself with brute force and make myself overcome weaknesses I had imposed on myself. I called to mind a problem I had been avoiding for the previous two days; before me I saw the path I would follow to resolve it. It unfolded in stages, the way the word “blossom” unrolls out of someone’s mouth, slides into your ear, and then opens within you.
There are certain truths we cannot see because we have internalized clichés that mask them with a superficial similarity. I had always shied away from “positive affirmations” – italics here are representative of a knowing cynicism – because I imagined that they were intended to make me “like” myself, and that once I “liked” myself all of my problems would evaporate. Being in flux allowed me to clamber on top of this idea and see all the automatic, repetitive, vicious “negative affirmations” I had been internalizing – lack of italics here is representative of an earnest, naked honesty – without being aware of how much work it was to remind myself of my status as abject failure.
Every other night of the week I’ve gone to bed fighting, holding onto my last bit of strength and energy, weighted down and mournful. Last night was completely different. I was light and peaceful. Every time my critical faculty crept in to temper my joy, to cast doubt on the long-term benefits of such gashes of insight, to remind me I would soon fall back into old habits, to present to me all of the ways in which my failure was encoded in my success – I could see it very clearly as a choice. My critical faculty exists to present me with alternatives, to show me the myriad possibilities of my timeline – not to bind my potential with a fear of infinite defeat.
There is a concussive joy to the letting go of limitations. I am a person, remade every moment. I am not a worst case scenario.