I recently had a conversation with someone about how to describe yourself; it was a rather one-sided conversation admittedly, since we carry out our discussions through the wonderful medium of the written word, and any replies take time to get through. This, of course, allows us to think carefully over an answer, to find out what our opinion is and, before putting pen to paper, seek out the justifications needed. We debate, in a manner of speaking, as was done of old, when more people were separated but, seeking intelligent and intellectual conversation with their peers and contemporaries, used the rudimentary postal services available to them. We’ve come a long way since then, although many would say letter writing has long out-lived its usefulness, especially in this age of modern technology. Mail, surprisingly enough, takes time to get through where, merely one hundred years ago, a letter could have been delivered on the day it was written and, indeed, in some parts of the world an immediate reply to a letter, on the same evening as an amorous meeting had taken place, was a requirement to show affection, good taste and manners as much as education.
He opened up the conversation by claiming that, when asked, most people would reply to the question ’who are you’ with name, date of birth, perhaps where they live and their educational, family or professional positions. Most people, we both feel, would be as hard put to express themselves in a manner which brings everything about themselves across in only a few words, just as you, with your Pandora’s Box of personality, history, experiences and emotions, find a mere two hundred and fifty words restrictive and, to a certain extent, off-putting. We have the bear in mind, however, that more and more people are finding it difficult to describe themselves: the technological advances claimed by our society by our Western culture, are impeding the growth of self-awareness, as we attempt to communicate, to describe ourselves within a smaller and smaller number of words or characters. My reply to him began with the example of a small child, unable to comprehend the magnitude of the question in a social context, who can answer with just their name, and need say no more. We are, effectively, a name, and this name contains everything that we are even though we did not pick out the name for ourselves.
Of course, with time we learn a good deal more about ourselves and, hopefully, come to accept ourselves for what we are as much as improve ourselves through various means. We adapt according to the people we are with, and according to the people we wish to be with. We are still able to describe ourselves, but in a contradictory fashion, and certainly not in so few words as some profiles require. We are, in a sense, an ongoing work of art, and one which will never quite be complete, never quite be perfect. And that doesn’t matter, just as long as we never give up, just as long as we continue to look around, gather experiences and learn.
The soul is undiscovered, though explored forever to a depth beyond report.
So wrote Heraclitus, roughly two thousand five hundred years ago. He does not, as I am sure you realise, refer to the soul as we understand it today or, better, as we have been brought up to understand and accept it by dogmatic religion today. The soul was the existence, the life power of the human; it was that thing which held their all, and which could never adequately be described, no matter how many words were used. So you are not alone in being unable to describe yourself; I certainly wouldn’t want to make any attempt to write a description of who I believe myself to be, I suspect that I would become lost very quickly indeed, there are so many different paths which have led to this point in life, and so many which lead from it into the next second, the next minute.
Heraclitus also told us that the river we see is not the same river as we saw, and will not be the same river we will see in a moment or two. The river, through its flowing waters, is constantly changing, as are we; we gather life’s experiences and add them to what is our own existence, our own personality, our being. Who can describe all of that? Where would you even start? Does the description we have of ourselves, or that which we wish to offer, begin with the opening of our own, personal Pandora’s Box?
I find the idea interesting for several reasons: Pandora was the first woman according to Greek myth, rather like the Christian Eve; she was created, if you like, by Hesiod in his Works and Days, who had her given a large jar containing all the evils of the world which she then let out. The legend is that Hope (as we know it, but a better translation would probably be Expectation) was the only remaining thing in her jar, but she closed the lid before it had a chance to work its charms. The mention of opening Pandora’s Box has, today, only negative connotations. By opening this jar of evil and troubles we are letting out nothing that is good but, thinking about it, is this perhaps not the best way forward? If we can confront our evil side – and I dislike the word evil, but suppose there are few other words which could be used considering the breadth of meaning – and face up to it, are we also opening up the possibility that Hope / Expectation will be released? If we can confront and stand up to what is bad, there is hope that we will recognise what is good and make our choice, for the future, with wisdom and forethought.
We can see ourselves in two different ways: through the image in a mirror; through the image in a window. The mirror shows us, as we and other people see ourselves (not including the fact that we are reversed which has no relevance to this theme), and shows what is behind us. The reflection in a window, however, shows us what is behind and that which is in front, still to come, what could be if we move forward. Some timers it is good to see what we have been, but to accept that there is more to us than just that; we have the ability to move forward, hopefully in the right direction, and cast the bad out through better expectation and, of course, a willingness to take a chance.
What the mirror often does not show is the other side of ourselves, the side that is pure influence from outside. None of us have gone through life without interaction with other people: we have all listened and learned; we have all been in the position of having someone tell us what is right and wrong, what we should do and what we should not; we have all decided which advice to listen to, which to discard. We all know that our decisions, good or bad, have been based partially on what others have said or done to us, and partially on what we feel right at that moment, the emotional side. It takes a long time to accept that what we are is not necessarily just us, that it is also the massive influences exerted throughout our lives, and whether our acceptance of them as being right and proper, or our unwillingness to accept them in the fond belief that we can be an individual and fight the system has led to where we are today. A man, it is said, is what he eats, and this can be interpreted in many ways too, but essentially comes down to character formation. We are what we have learned, we are what has influenced us, we are what our society and its systems, customs and traditions have demanded us to be. Once you confront the contents of your own Pandora’s Box, look this aspect of yourself in the face and recognise all its aspects, you are ready to open the box again and let out that final creation of the gods.
A fascinating little side note about Pandora is that she was created on the orders of Zeus by Hephaestus – he couldn’t even be bothered to do the dirty work himself – and then sent down to Earth as the first woman to gain revenge on Prometheus, who had stolen fire from the heavens. Even worse, Pandora was given to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, and so brought bad luck on the entire family and, as we know, the rest of the world too. Quite a weight for women to carry on their shoulders.
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow […]; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
Nothing better than the Bible and Genesis to put someone in their place!
What do we learn from life or, better, what are we learning since, as I wrote earlier, this is a constantly changing experience. We see and feel the adverse side of life at every turn, whether it be physically or mentally or both, and have to cope with all things no matter how old we are, how mature, how understanding, weak or strong. We turn to those who can help, or turn to those who need help. We experience, through these multitude of actions – adverse and otherwise – a society which is not necessarily attuned to us, and we find friends who are only in touch with themselves, their own needs and emotions, and discard those who can no longer advance them. We balance constantly on the edge of an abyss, hardly able to place one foot in front of another at times, the fear of slipping and plunging headlong into the darkness continuously present. How many friends have we had, or people we cared to call friends, who, when the time of need came, were not there? How is it that we came to call them our friend; what were the criteria we used; how did we measure their friendship; how to we measure them now? I believe we have all had friends who have been there so long as we were useful to them, so long as we placed no demands on their abilities, their time, their feelings. We have all been used in this fashion, at some time or another.
We refine our lives: what do we look for in a friend, in the very act of friendship? Clearly a two-way model; give and take as much as companionship on a cold dark night or in the bar over a few drinks. Do they need to have the same vision about life as we do, or the same experiences, or the same political / social / emotional beliefs? What are we looking for in a friend? Come to that, since it is highly relevant here, what are we looking for in a correspondent? Are we using the mirror to make our choices, or half seeing our reflection, half seeing the possibilities of the future as we look through the window?
What we call strength of mind, implies the prevalence of the calm passions above the violent; tho’ we may easily observe, there is no man so constantly possess’d of this virtue, as never on any occasion to yield to the solicitations of passion and desire.
So David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature. Friendship is something built up over time, it cannot be a sudden spark of the moment, a sudden passion which holds for a lifetime. True friendship requires work, requires that we approach it calmly and without the violent passions of, say, a quick love affair. It is not so much a meeting of the minds, although this is also important, but more an acceptance of the other for being who they are, for being unique and an individual within the constraints of social demands. A friend listens as much as they talk, and that, today, is a sad rarity.
And there, in that last sentence, we have an ideal formulation of why letter writing is such an superlative means of communication. We write, and are undisturbed in our thoughts by the comments of those we write to. We can be free to follow a theme, and know that the other person will be listening, because they have no opportunity to interrupt, to break our train of thought, to interject their own ideas, experiences, emotions. We can, through letter writing, literally break free of all restraints, follow a theme or a thread to its logical conclusion, and produce a finished work which, while not perfect, is a reflection of ourselves and our innermost thoughts. If, that is, we trust ourselves to put the words down on paper. And, if we are lucky, this outpouring of thoughts, this train of ideas and experiences committed to paper, will provoke a reply of the same depth, the same level of interest. Letter writing is a form of trust: trust that what we write will be thought about, mulled over, and answered in the same calm and considered manner as we would wish to hold a live, face-to-face conversation. Letter writing is a form of exposure: we open ourselves up to the voyeuristic gaze of someone we do not yet know, someone we cannot see, and allow them to glimpse, to inspect, to partake of our innermost selves.
If this, over a suitably long period of time, cannot lead to a hard and fast friendship, then there is no hope for the human race.