I admit, I’m a bit puzzled by “selfies.”
Maybe it’s a generational thing. My parents didn’t get rock music (the Beatles were taxing enough for their ears—fuggedabout Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix). My grandparents didn’t really get TV (except perhaps the news . . . but that was before bloviating displaced reportage).
Or maybe it’s because whenever I chance across pictures of myself from, say, the 70s or the 80s, I’m momentarily flooded by a sense of horror. Did I really choose to dress like that?
For some reason though, whenever I see a “selfie” posted somewhere I’m brought back to a question my parents often asked, usually when I was especially bratty: “Who do you think you are?”
I didn’t appreciate that question at the time, of course. I didn’t get that whatever prepubescent or adolescent hormones were racing through my body might be urging me towards doing something I would later regret. I just wanted to be me — whoever me was at that particular moment.
Decades later, I find myself and my contemporaries asking this question of ourselves. As adults, our lives are so complex that we find ourselves playing different roles in different situations.
Sometimes the sheer complexity of switching between all the different roles we play throughout the day becomes overwhelming and we find ourselves momentarily confused, genuinely wondering, “Who am I?”
Although it may initially seem distressing, we can learn to appreciate such moments of confusion, to consider each one as a gift — a break from the rigidity and routine that all too often creeps into our daily lives, robbing us of the openness, spontaneity and creativity that characterize the essence of our being.
One of the core principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that our essential nature is completely free.
At the basic level of our being, we are “empty” of definable characteristics. We aren’t defined by our past, our present, or our thoughts and feelings about the future. We have the potential to experience anything.
When we come into physical being, we’re clothed in a body that has the capacity to sense, to feel, and to discern. During the first months of life, however, all these aspects of embodied being are rather hazy and indistinct. We experience a very fluid sense of being that might best be described as a stream of experiences.
As we go through life, however, we tend to lose this fluidity as we confront the need to make distinctions — literally and figuratively bumping into things and others, and having to figure out what or who they are and what or who we are in relationship to them. Over time, we accumulate layers of ideas about who we (and others) are.
As these layers accumulate, we tend to become more and more attached to them. They offer us an illusion of solidity in a world which, whether we like it or not, is characterized by impermanence and change.
One of the ways we try to manage or defy change is to define ourselves, and to hold on to such definitions. We create compelling and persistent personal stories.
But even a particularly persuasive story can be tested in a moment of confusion: when we’re tired and frustrated at the end of a long day, for example, or when a meeting we thought we were prepared for turns out to be about something entirely different. At such moments, the seeming solidity of our story-selves drops away for an instant and we experience a little break. In such moments, the fluidity and openness we experienced as children has a chance to resurface.
In the rush of daily life, it’s easy to miss such moments, to gloss over the confusion and try, without even thinking about it, to regain the seeming certainty of our identity. It’s that urgency to recover certainty that seems to me to underlie the impulse to snap a “selfie.”
But I’d like to propose a little experiment, which I’ve found useful at various times in my own life.
The next time you find yourselves momentarily confused or uncertain, just allow that confusion, that uncertainty, to linger for a moment. Ask yourself, not in an unkind or parentally controlling way, “Who do you think you are?”
What happens when you do that? What do you feel?
What possibilities open up in a “non-selfie” moment?
Can you simply, fearlessly, freely be?
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