PFAM: Renewals

Thursday, January 10 2013

Amy from Diabetes Mine prompts this month’s PFAM with the theme ‘renewals’ — “not just prescription renewals, but any ways in which you may be starting fresh for the new year.” This is an apt theme for me, at this particular moment, because the prospect of renewal is very concrete in my life at the moment.

My renewal is probably more sweeping than anything Amy had in mind: I might have to reinvent myself. Again.

I should differentiate here between my online self, Duncan Cross, and my off-line real-world mild-mannered alter ego (who shall remain nameless, but abbreviated MMAE). The problem with MMAE is that he hasn’t been successful, even adequate at his chosen career, and in a week or two will learn or maybe decide whether it is time to find something else to do with his life. Sorry to say that I don’t think Duncan Cross is going anywhere, but maybe more prolific.

The good news is that I (he, we) have done this before, several times. When first diagnosed, MMAE realized that his childhood dream obsession — flying jets for the Air Force — was finished. This led to a lengthy wilderness period in which MMAE was undeclared for two years in college before finally settling on a major (and a different college). He then settled on a career overseas, which came to an end during a study abroad term, in which he discovered he was unable to manage his illness in a developing country. MMAE then resigned himself to spending the rest of his life in the US, doing things that weren’t even plan B, but then came the 2006 surgery that gave him his appliance and the deliberate split in his personality that lead to yours truly becoming a force of nature in the blogosphere.

If all that seems unfathomably weird, let me suggest you don’t quite appreciate how much life can change. Maybe you heard last week about the study that suggests people overestimate how stable their personalities are — that is, “people generally fail to appreciate how much their personality and values will change in the years ahead — even though they recognize that they have changed in the past.” Maybe you thought, ‘wow, that is something I did not know’. But for me, this is something I have known for a long time.

A surprising thing that I have learned by being sick is how plastic we are — that is, how malleable in our personalities. In our society we place great stock on the consistency of our personalities, a superficial sort of ‘integrity’ which insists we always present the same face to those around us. We fear anything that might change the ‘self’, but we cannot grow if we cannot change. I have seen many people made miserable by the belief they cannot change who they are, trapped in a persona that no longer does them good.

For each person, there is no one particular person whom they must be, but a range of possible ways to live with purpose and meaning. It is up to each of us to muddle through, to find someone whom we are satisfied to be, and this is a process more or less continual in our lives. Who you are today is not who you will be a year from a now, a decade from now.

And accepting that fact — that we will change, that we must — has given me the power to embrace it. Maybe it’s because my changes have been so stark, so clearly landmarked by trauma, that I can recognize the difference between before and after personalities. Maybe change creeps up on the rest of you, and you don’t know until it’s gone. Seeing it coming, I could fight, but instead I simply manage. I plan to be someone else.

I am now trying to decide who the next MMAE will be. Who are his friends? Will his hobbies be the same? What will matter to him in the world? I know he will be angry — angry at his own failings, but more angry at the people who have failed him. So my hope is that this next me will be quieter, calmer, more reflective, and able to distance himself from that anger — and I know I must be deliberate towards that end.

It’s not all bad news, this starting over. The next me will have the luxury of jettisoning a tremendous amount of bullshit that has accumulate in his present life, mostly related to his struggling career. There are people whose asses he will be greatly relieved never to have to kiss again, and things he will gladly never think about again. So that’s something to look forward to.

We sometimes worry that illness will take away from us who we are — and that’s true, to some extent. But to some other extent, this is true only insofar as we resist change. Sickness may well turn us into people we do not recognize, people we could not have imagined, and we can rightly grieve the people we once were. But change is not death: we can be sick and still live lives full of meaning and purpose.

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