Yesterday I surprised myself. Also, the day before. And today. In fact, every day. I surprise myself when my view of life changes from what it was before.
Which isn't really surprising, since life is full of change. It could even be said that life is change. Hearts beat. Lungs breathe. Neurons fire. When life becomes unchanging, that's called death.
The surprise that brought this blog post to life was me saying in a comment that I agreed with what another commenter had said about theistic religions being more satisfying. I wrote:
You might be surprised to hear this, but I also agree that theistic religions tend to be more satisfying than non-theistic faiths like Buddhism. This seems to be why so many Buddhists look upon the Buddha as a divine being rather than a mere teacher. And why prayer wheels, repeating Namu Amida Butsu as a mantra, and such are more popular than following the breath in meditation. My problem is that while I can occasionally pretend that I believe in a personal divine being, I really don't, so my occasional half-hearted attempts at embracing theism don't get me very far.
So I'm a devout atheist who dabbles occasionally with believing in a god, in sort of the same way as I'm a raspberry jam lover who occasionally buys a different flavor to put on my morning toast, but so far I've always returned to raspberry after a brief dalliance with another type of jam.
Walt Whitman, the poet, famously said:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
We all do. There isn't a single stable unchanging "me" or "you" or "them" anywhere to be found. We all contain multitudes. We all contradict ourselves.
Religious believers contain a bit of atheism, just as atheists contain a bit of religious belief. Faithful spouses contain a bit of promiscuity, just as promiscuous people contain a bit of faithful spouse'ness. Liberals contain a bit of conservatism, just as conservatives contain a bit of liberalism.
Those bits may be mostly hidden, barely recognized, rarely or never acted upon.
However, to be human is to be complicated. We may try to put on a simple consistent face to the world, but within us there's always the potential of being a considerably different person than we are now.
This is beautiful.
The multitudes that comprise each of us are hugely more interesting than a solitary unchanging self would be. Our capacity to be many, not one, allows for growth, development, progress, unpredictability, creativity.
Imagine how blah a movie about the life of someone with no contradictions would be. It wouldn't take long before we'd become bored with the character, since there would be little drama to them.
When my wife and I started watching Ted Lasso on Apple TV+, I grew worried after the first few episodes. Lasso was so upbeat and positive in every circumstance, he seemed one-dimensional, not all that interesting.
Gradually, though, we got to know Ted Lasso in more depth, thanks to excellent writing and plot lines. The darker side of Lasso was exposed. We got insights into why his demeanor is usually so cheerful, and why sometimes he falls into despair (and panic attacks).
I never felt that the Ted Lasso character got diminished as the multitudes within him were revealed, not just the original Happy Face Lasso. With every contradiction that came to light, Lasso became more interesting and human, not less.
A commentary on Whitman's poem includes this passage:
What are arguably Whitman’s most famous lines appear here: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Whitman is recasting one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s central ideas: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. . . . Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. . . . To be great is to be misunderstood.”
For Whitman, as we have seen, the self is a continually evolving and expanding entity, and new experiences will always broaden and challenge and upset what a self believed earlier.
We must learn to be grateful to arrive at contradictions and to cultivate a sense of a self open and aware enough to “speak against” (the root meaning of “contradict”) the self that existed yesterday.
As “Song of Myself” has demonstrated throughout, a self that does not change is a stunted identity, dead to the transforming stimuli of the multitudinous world around us, stimuli that include the transforming words of this poem.