What makes us who we are? What are the underlying and overlying, extrinsic and intrinsic, voluntary and involuntary characteristics that help shape our identity?
For so many, it comes down to beliefs, language, and upbringing - which, paraphrasing Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana - history repeats itself (1). We believe what our parents believe, or what those adults that have made an impact on us thought and believed. We find idols and heroes in literature, fiction, nonfiction, comic books, movies, and music - and attach to their belief system. But another part of the equation - one that is sadly underrated, I think - is the environment we choose. Before I go on, let me discuss what this isn't:
- The environment we choose is not the class, race, geographic location that we were born into
- The environment we choose is not our family, nor our family's belief system; nor is it our family friends
- The environment we choose is not the belief or religious system we were born into
The environment we choose takes pure, unadulterated thought and conscious choice. It's the people we choose to surround ourselves with (blood kin or not); the news, music, work environment, and learning we choose. I believe everyone has a choice, though sadly, I don't think we all make this choice.
Being from a small town, I always wanted out - I was focused on the journey that took me out of town and onto the path to discovery. Part of this motivation was being around other adults who weren't happy with their situations, and who kept relying on their excuses: "my job is here", "my children's school is here", "my family is here". I would rather be far away geographically and close emotionally to my family, and I knew that if I had stayed, it wouldn't be possible - I would have been unhappy, and drifted away from everyone. We create our own light and our own dark, just as much as life will deal you.
I believe the greats (2) are right - if life is worth living, you'd want to put all you can into actually living it. The job, the family, the responsibility will always be there, but it's so malleable. Any relationship is the inverse of the care and time you put into it, and family is no different. The job market is more disparate than ever, with teleworking and flexwork on the rise (though, please catch on faster, East Coast). If you want it, you can do it - just make sure you have support in your corner. I, for one, would be a little introverted (albeit incredibly distracted and productive) shell of a person without my better half. Now, he makes up part of my identity. Waking up next to him each morning is a treat, and our conversations, made-up language, looks and feelings, and the way we translate each other make me believe in love and everything good in this life. Yet I sought him out. I messaged him first on a dating site we were both on, and I initiated it - because as much comfort as gender norms can bring us, I prefer to shove them out of the window. I made the conscious choice to make sure my life - the work environment, the salary, the commute, the man I'm to marry, the relationship I have with good friends and family - it all matches up to my high expectations.
Making so many conscious choices is hard. It's difficult. It takes a lot of introversion and meditation to get through the tough weeks, and the tough weeks are tough. They sometimes stretch the limits of my heart and soul until I don't think I can give any more. But when I look around me, I see consciousness. I see choice. And in this life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness - we all need conscious choices.
(1) The exact quote from Santayana is "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
(2) Includes references to Seneca: "Begin at once to live and count each separate day as a separate life"; Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."; and Maya Angelou: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."