“In every block of marble, I see a statue…
I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison
the lovely apparition to reveal it.”
I had a wonderful conversation last week with a remarkable student in one of my classes. It was a long conversation over tea as we made our way to semester’s end. Among the questions she asked was: “What is the relationship between being and becoming? How do we become what we are? How do we become what we are meant to be?”
She was exploring the question because a very dear friend of hers had told her: “You have not yet planted the flag in the ground and declared, ‘this is who I am’”. Do we ever plant the flag – like Neil Armstrong on the moon – and declare “this is who I am”? Is the work of becoming ever complete?
My student, like so many of her colleagues, is getting ready to graduate. She will move from one stage of her life to the next, from the known to the unknown, and into the next stage of her own journey of self-discovery.
I have watched hundreds of students cross the stage at university graduation ceremonies. They cross the stage, often at about the age of 22 or 25, and have all the rest of their lives stretching out before them. The thing is: so do I. The power of that potential is always with us. I have all the rest of my life waiting for me, in front of me as well. So do you. So does everyone else.
To be alive is to engage the journey of self-discovery.
What is the relationship between being and becoming? What we are is the result of our choices, as we take our next step or place the direction for the rudder of our boat. Through our choices we become who we are.
The great high renaissance sculptor Michelangelo: they asked him, “How did you make your statue of David?” He is reported to have said, “It's very simple; you just chip away the stone that doesn't look like David.”
How do we become ourselves?
It is a work of artistry. We are the artists who carve our lives and make the choices that shape what we become. As we chip away the parts that aren't ourselves, we increasingly become who we are.
Becoming: from one perspective, it is quite simple. One who lies becomes a liar. One who steals becomes a thief. One who bullies becomes a bully. One who cheats becomes a cheater, just as surely as one who paints becomes a painter. It is a common sense observation which is part of old Indian karma theory.
The idea of karma is understood slightly differently in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. Each would agree that the effect of our choices shapes – in very physical ways – who we become.
Have you ever walked down the street and looked at someone and thought to yourself, “That person gives me the creeps.”? What we do creates a residue that stays with us and is hard to wash off.
Have you felt someone walk into a room and said to yourself, “That is a good, decent and honest person. That is someone I can trust. I feel good when I'm in the presence of that person.”
What we do – how we behave - determines what we become.
It is part of the basic principle of cause and effect, as inescapable as gravity. One who manipulates becomes a manipulator. It has a smell, a texture, a look, a stench: it becomes part of the presence of that person. It cannot be hidden. It cannot lie. As we behave, so we become. The weight of bad behavior, that coats people with sticky residue, covers up the beauty of what we could become.
Genuine becoming is a question of taking the unnecessary bits away.
So how do we engage our hammer and chisel to take away the unnecessary bits? Is it by planting a flag in the ground like Neil Armstrong on the moon, declaring, “This is me!”?
If I look back on the journey of becoming, there are a series of occasions, when in some sense, I would have planted the flag. So it's not a single incident, unveiling a finished work of art.
The person, like life itself, is in a constant process of unfolding. Any organic process is characterized by change. We unfold, gradually revealing what we are, just as surely as the seasons, the flowers, and the trees reveal themselves through their unfolding.
Yet there are a series of flags that I see behind me, left like sign posts along the path. I see them at the important junctures, the small number of places where the decisions I made would set the course of my unfolding such that there was no going back.
It is not in the big, public moments, with fireworks or applause. The big moments – like the student crossing the stage at graduation – are the results of our choices. These are not the moments that are decisive, but that carve away unnecessary bits.
If you look back on your life what are the decisive moments that have shaped the person you have become. Are they the visible, public events, the high rituals of our rites of passage?
I lived here. I moved there. I had this job, then that job. There was this relationship, then that relationship. What has shaped the person that you have become, like the artist chiseling away at the stone? Can you name five moments that were pivotal in shaping who you are?
If I look back at my five moments, part of what I see is that these were private moments of decision. No one on the outside – and likely not even me on the inside – would have recognized at the time how that event, or that decision, or that conversation, would shape everything that followed.
These moments of artistic self-creation also happened in the spaces in-between. They weren’t the busy days of running between task lists and deadlines, stop lights and traffic.
Self-creation, like any creative process, happens in the open space in-between.
One such moment happened in Banff National Park in western Canada. I was visiting a friend who lived in Calgary. Banff is a very easy day trip away. It was a weekend when I needed to make a decision about my education path. Where would I do my master's degree? Who would I study with? What would that subject be?
I spent a day with myself in Banff. I took a gondola up to the top of a mountain and spent time with the winds. There was a cave halfway up the mountain, and I spent time sitting still in that cave. I went swimming in the hot springs - the hot, mineral spring waters that come out of the mountain – and I listened. Can I listen to the winds, and the waves, and feel what I should do next, where my foot should next touch the ground?
Much of the unfolding of my adult years is traceable to that moment of decision. That step of the foot landing on the ground directed the shape, and line, and flow of all future consequences, for me. Anything that followed was in some way directed by that decision.
If I look back on the act of carving my life, the next decision is a French language decision. It was the moment “j’ai fermé la porte de la Sorbonne”.
It is custom in France that if it is your birthday you bring the cake to share with your friends. In the same way, it is custom for a graduating doctoral student to host the celebration following the Ph.D. defense. In my case, it was a three-hour debate – three hours of questioning from my teachers - and then I, as the student, hosted the reception. This is the social rite of passage: you were a student; now you become a colleague.
Is it the right champagne, served at the right temperature, with the right hot and cold canapés?
It was dark by the time the reception was finished. Myself and my two Italian friends were among the last to leave the old historic Sorbonne building. This university, founded in 1253, is among the oldest universities in Western Europe. It is a very old stone structure. The historic Sorbonne building has large, medieval doors, of the kind that might see in the “Lord of the Rings”. These massive medieval doors have door handles, about a foot in diameter, that you grasp by reaching up above your head.
As we left the building that night – with my two Italian friends beside me -– I got to reach up to that large brass door handle and close the door of that ancient historic building. There was a resounding thud. It marked the end of about a ten year time in my life. This is part of the journey of becoming - as we chip away the unnecessary bits and gradually reveal ourselves: what doors do we open, and what doors close?
It is in small and private moments that we trace the shape of our lives. The visible outside changes are merely the consequence of those internal moments of decision.
What do we hold on to? What will we let fall away?
Is there some finished sculpture inside the marble that one day I will reveal? I shall have to live longer to find out.
In the journey of becoming, we make our choices and choose our directions. We engage the process with hammer and chisel, doing the physical work of the artist. In our moments of chipping away, we feel of loss of what was, the letting go of the familiar - and the polishing of our rough spots - as we unveil ourselves, taking away the unnecessary bits one piece at a time.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness