Who is this re-invented person?

1 May

More of you responded to my last blog, on Sally Field’s spirituality of re-inventing ourselves, than to any of the previous thirty-two installments–it obviously struck a chord.

Your responses express a range of perspectives. They raise the question for me–just who (or what) is this “self” that may be re-invented? But I’ll return to that question after I describe the range of responses.

Some people have been reinventing themselves throughout their adult lives. For some, this means a frequent change in jobs, but more than that. A woman who has moved around in her lifetime, writes: “I reinvented myself every time I moved. The people I met in the new place had no idea who I was in the old place. I moved to different neighborhoods or different states at least eight times in my adult years. You can tell the new people about who you were in the former place, but they still don’t know you “that way”. So the moving reinvention is both a challenge/opportunity to be someone new and a disappointment that you do not have the reputation/expectations that you had with the people of the old place.”

An independent business man follows a calling to theology, while maintaining the business. After receiving his doctorate, he moves for some years into college and university teaching, only to find his way blocked by several factors. He then turned to law, specializing in civil rights cases. He recently began cutting back on his law practice to take on teaching online courses. He writes: “I’m in the process of reinventing the next phase. Life is full of possibilities still–an adventure as Whitehead reminded us all.”

There’s excitement in these words. Others feel pain and uncertainty in reinvention–they find it demoralizing. For example, reinvention hits with a jolt when a spouse dies–there’s no alternative. The close interaction, the symbiosis, comes to an end–sometimes unexpectedly–and life has to be reinvented–from scratch for many people, traumatic especially for many older people. People experience the same kind of loss when a partner falls to dementia.

Some are cautious about the idea of reinventing. Two women, both high-achieving women and over 70, responded with impressive accounts of the activities they carry on–the same activities they’ve been doing for years. I know others–men as well–for whom re-invention is not on the agenda. I was one of these until a very few years ago. I recall attending a retirement workshop 20 years ago, at which a counselor said to me, “If you aren’t prepared to create a new life for yourself, you will have a difficult retirement. I scoffed at this advice then–“What’s wrong with carrying on with the interests and activities that have been central for so many years–at least as long as you are able?”

“As long as you are able”–that may be the key. Things happen–good things and bad things–over which we may have no control; we simply must adjust. The world around us is key to our re-invention.

In her new book, Barbara Bradley Hagerty waxes eloquent about re-imagining life, as the title indicates, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. From a recent interview, I concluded that she is unrealistic when she speaks of midlife as a time to drop everything and simply reorient one’s life. She finished by saying, “I think my book may apply only to upper middle class persons.” Dropping everything and reorienting require a level of luxury–time and money–that most of us do not enjoy.

The world around us and our health prod re-invention. Re-inventing is adapting to what happens in us and around us. If it is true, as one of you suggests, that re-invention will be a way of life for millennials–as it has been for the theologian/businessman-become-lawyer I referred to earlier–it is caused by the changing nature of jobs and employment as much as anything else. Shakespeare caught this over four hundred years ago, his play As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.”

For me, as I said earlier, the big question that emerges is: Just who is this me, this self that re-invents? Philosophers have written a good deal about how difficult it really is draw connections between our various stages of being ourselves. Twenty years ago, I had a few free days by myself in Denver, my hometown. I rented a car and visited every house I had lived in, every school I attended. I walked the neighborhood that I lived in for fifteen years–the alley where we played Kick the Can, the vacant lot where my dad and I had a huge vegetable garden during the Second World War, the drug store that had a soda fountain where I enjoyed cherry phosphates, and many other childhood and teenage haunts.

I was amazed, that I felt no real connection with the boy whose life was shaped by those places. I still see no continuity, except the connections I create in my mind, with that boy and the man who traveled to other parts of the world and spent half his life in Chicago, earning a doctorate, teaching in a Lutheran seminary, and retiring–still in Chicago–on the shore of Lake Michigan. I’ve been re-invented so many times that continuity is blurred. I’d be interested to know if others share this experience.

Sally Field, whose comments prompted these blogs, said that since her new, 70 year-old, self has not yet appeared, she awaits the revelation who she will be. In his response, Rick Busse speaks in terms of his process of re-invention. One of you asked, “Does reinvention or the need for it cause depression–a sadness for what is lost? Can reinvention give new motivation and enthusiasm? What determines how a person reacts to this need to reinvent?”

My conclusion: there is mystery at the heart of who we are, always changing and growing, defying prediction, always deeper than we can fathom.

Who I am
where I’m going
only I can say
I form the image
draw the map
paint the picture
from the scraps
and puzzle bits
that surround me
no one can put them
together for me

(c) Phil Hefner. 30 April 2016

2 Responses to “Who is this re-invented person?”

  1. sandyjwhite May 4, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

    I enjoyed your synopsis, Phil. I hope you might consider moderating discussion of other topics of interest from time to time.

  2. Liftthescreen May 4, 2016 at 6:12 pm #

    Thanks for the suggestion, Sandy.

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