I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life . . . (William Stafford)
Having reached the age of 68, I have experienced, more than a few times, the shock of looking back at photographs of myself in my 20’s, 30’s, and so on, noting the immeasurable differences. Who is that guy? I feel like the same person, yet physical changes are easily captured these days through the technology we utilize from day-to-day. There are likewise the personal, philosophical, and spiritual changes in beliefs, values, and worldview that punctuate our corridors of time. Still, I undergo these changes. How can we change, yet be the same? What is this this thing we recognize as change, while we also experience a constancy across time that we call the self?
The subjective experience of constancy and change brings up a question debated in many circles these days, particularly in philosophical and psychological circles. In the midst of all the changes we experience, do we have a core that defines who we are as a self, something that remains stable, that doesn’t change? We all know that we change. Most of us even experience what we call deep change, changes that strike at our core beliefs and values, overhauling our view of life and what it’s about – in a word, our worldview. Yet I reflect on and know these changes; it is my awareness of changes in me. Who is this I who continuously undergoes and is aware that he undergoes change?
Another question that emerges for me is that if there is a core to our identity, can we miss it? Can we misunderstand it? Can we live in such a way that we do not discover it, or leave it closed off, perhaps due to our conformity to all that surrounds us? Can we live in such a way so that we’re not in touch with the core – the heart – of who and what we are?
Well, as a typical blogger who likes to philosophize now and then, I ask these questions, but have only exploratory thoughts regarding them. I believe in many ways, human beings are a great mystery. We live our lives constantly seeking to come to grips with the mystery that is ourselves, a mystery like a great river that we recognize in segments, but cannot see totally from where it originates and where it ends up.
Poets and Questions
I approach this topic via a couple of my favorite poets, Matthew Arnold and William Stafford. Likewise, I engage this notion via a personal journal entry from 2015 I happened to reread this past month. I had pinned the journal entry upon reading the American poet, William Stafford. I reflected upon several questions: Where in the core of my being am I going? It seems easy to get off track. And then later in the entry I asked, Can I reach back and find the seed that I smothered . . .? And then near the end of the entry I asked, Can I reach down deep and find the core, that layer buried, ready for discovery, that I seemed to have forsaken?
This journal entry and the questions it poses relate to some of my personal struggles. Yet I think they are ones that many people experience. At any rate, that seems to be the case based on my twenty-five years of being a professor, watching students develop their own lives, as well as being a counselor for the same number of years working with clients. The questions, however, set on a presumption. There is a core we call the self. To some degree we can come to know it. Yet whatever it is, changes. I’m not sure if it is possible to resolve the heart-felt experience of constancy and change. Like many tensions in life, perhaps the better approach is to radically accept them and let them be, while simultaneously exploring what they offer about life.
Interestingly, both Stafford, who is a modern American Poet, and Arnold, who is a Victorian poet, apply the metaphor of a river as representing the core or thread that runs through our understanding of our experiences involving both constancy and change. Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888), in the Buried Life, speaks somewhat pessimistically about our truly wanting to know who we are and how we actually feel about things. The experience, he surmises, is too scary. Not only would we personally rather not know this buried life, but we don’t want others to know it either. According to Arnold, if others know our core, we fear their cold, indifferent response to who we are. Hence, the seed of conformity emerges in our social relations, a seed whose fruit is our lostness. Nonetheless, Arnold paints an exquisite picture of the fulfilling, yet fleeting, moments when we make contact with our internal river. He says, The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,/And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know. This sounds like a beautiful description of the experience we undergo when we understand ourselves to be living in alignment with what we know and believe. I’m not sure how often we step into such an experience, but I do believe it to be a powerful one. Arnold believes it to be a rare one. Such an alignment seems to indicate that we possess a core that says, This is who I am, and what I’m all about.
William Stafford (1924 – 1993) discussed what he experienced as a hidden river in his own life. I tend to agree with what he says regarding the buried stream. It’s there; I know it’s there; but I come to know it more and more as I move through life. These are not Stafford’s words, but my interpretation of his discussions from his essays and interviews, in addition to poems he has authored. Perhaps constancy and change is a continuing flow of experience, like a river, that surges and slows, that is shallow at spots but then deepens, and that travels through sinuous paths, twisting, turning, and flowing back on itself, and then eventually continuing on to its destination – the same, yet changing river. An apt metaphor, particularly when we think of how a river hovers, staying within its banks, yet threatening to overflow its containment, fighting against the conformity that its context has set for it. And then, at times it does just that, violently flooding over all that is around it, perhaps carving a new river bank altogether. When we align with our core, there may be a lot of rules we have to break, and many people whom we have to disappoint. We know it’s there, but we never know completely what it’s going to do, nor where it’s going to take us, and how it’s going to change us.
There are those today who question the notion of a core self. Perhaps they’re correct, but I don’t believe so. Perhaps they offer another social context for conformity. In following our own river, what pressures might we butt up against? To carve our own paths, what and whose rules might we have to break so as to become that person who says what he means, and means what he says?
I want to conclude this essay of reflection simply by offering Stafford’s poem, “The Way It Is”. Matthew Arnold referred to the buried life as a river. In an interview, Stafford spoke of a what he called the hidden river of his life. In his poem, Stafford uses the metaphor of a thread. He encourages us to grasp and follow it if we get a glimpse of what it is. Most importantly, we should never let it go lest we become lost. Here is Stafford’s short poem:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/things that change. But it doesn’t change./People wonder about what you are pursuing./You have to explain about the thread/But it is hard for others to see./While you hold it you can’t get lost./Tragedies happen; people get hurt/or die; and you suffer and get old./Nothing you can do can stop time’s unfolding./You don’t ever let go of the thread.
What is our river or our thread? How do we understand who we are amidst all the changes we undergo? How do we hold on to things we’re trying to understand in the face of so much pressure to conform by so many who might not understand? What is this self that chooses, embraces, and recognizes change? I change. In those two simple words, the existential tension is the great mystery. It is a mystery like a secret thread flowing through us we’re trying to find and hold onto; like a hidden river we’re following to where we’re not sure.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/August 14th, 2016