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Embracing Who We Unknowingly Are

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Admiring other people is something we should be careful about doing. I believe we are not wary enough of it because we assume that our admiration comes from an unselfish place - from the part of us that is able to recognize something as beautiful even if that thing is not connected to us. To admire others must mean that we are not narcissists.

It is also an easy trap to fall into, as a few people in our surroundings will almost always seem to stand out in some way - as though there is something more individual about them than about the rest of us. It can feel sometimes like life is a stage in which most people are meant to occupy the background, and only a special few are the ones who deserve to be front and center.

Focusing on the people we admire can be an unhealthy tendency, even if it seems to come from an unselfish place.

When we admire others very much, we start to know and evaluate who we are in the light of who they are. It can have the self-fulfilling effect of making us more into shadows than we would be otherwise, since we become focused on their beauty at the expense of radiating our own.

But it may be that the proverbial flower into which we would bloom would not be a similar flower to theirs anyway, and that wishing we were a similar flower to the one they are makes it harder for us to 'bloom' at all.

As a small example, I have found it valuable to even "un-friend" people I admire on Facebook, when I find that I am writing posts with them in mind - and sensing that they probably won't even pay them any attention if they happen to see them. Un-friending them, not out of anger but out of wanting to be free from hoping for their attention, has been a healthy and centering practice which I recommend to others as well. You cannot be yourself unless you are acting from yourself, without thought to courting a specific reaction from someone else (romantically or platonically).

I don't deny that admiring others who are unlike us can enhance our growth in certain ways. When we admire people in a way that (as it often does) makes us want to emulate them, this can lead us to experiment with new ways of being in the world. Many of us, when we reach adulthood, feel, maybe with some reason, that we are limited in who we have grown to be, and need to evolve in a direction that is maybe even the opposite of what we have so far been focused on. Of my high-school circle of friends, for instance, I saw a pattern where each one of us in later adulthood tried to cultivate, almost aggressively, the opposite strengths or virtues of the ones that we had developed initially. The one who had been softest evolved later to become unusually tough and removed; the one who had been the most rigid and controlling seemed to deliberately evolve towards becoming more playful; the one who had always given the least thought to her appearance evolved to become the one who was the most fit and best-dressed of all; for my part, from being a very dreamy, non-practical person, I evolved as much as I could to become someone reliable with facts and capable of a more political understanding.

It is the people we admire who often lead to us imagine alternative ways of being from the ones we developed in an earlier stage of life. We actually admire them mainly because they are so different from us in ways that we previously only dimly understood ourselves to be lacking. By studying their way of behaving, we find ways of experimenting in our ways of behaving. I know that, in my lifetime, I have sometimes deliberately adopted verbal expressions used by people I admired, because it gave me a comfortable feeling that I was now a little bit more like them.

But who we are, in the most important way, is not something we consciously mold ourselves into. And any growth we engage in in the spirit of compensating for our limitations is to a great degree secondary to the growth we engage in because it comes instinctively to us. At some point, I think it is healthy to step out of the practice of growth-as-emulation, and start opening ourselves up to being the thing that comes most effortlessly to us to want to be. What makes this hard is that we have a deep fear that our most authentic selves may be more suited to the background of the "world stage" than its center. We have this fear because we ourselves often struggle to see what is unique about ourselves. But this is actually not an accident. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt, who always captures human experiences so well, says in her book, The Human Condition, everyone reveals who they are through their actions, but

"it is more than likely that the 'who' which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters" (The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p179-80)

Arendt's insight, which I believe is on target, is that we tend not to know what makes us distinctive as individuals when we interact with others, even though other people can readily see the spirit and qualities that make us distinctive. It is our lack of awareness about our distinctiveness that can lead us to think we are more poor than we are, which in turn can lead us to want to be something different from what we are authentically. The power of Arendt's insight is that we can embrace who we are and trust that it is richer than we ourselves can know it to be, precisely because it is hard for the self to know the self anyway (to know it would require a degree of detachment from it). It is for others to judge what we bring to the stage that is unique in flavor and value. We cannot realize and fulfill our role in the world until we decide to embrace who we are even before knowing what we are embracing and why it is interesting.

Here I will repeat a quote (apparently credited to theatre actor Konstantin Stanislavski): "there are no small parts, only small actors". I would add, perhaps simply to clarify this quote, that the small actors are only the ones who believe they have small parts.

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