Be is Way Better than Not-Be

When I found my tracks in the snow
I followed, thinking that they might
lead me back to where I was. But
they turned the wrong way and went on.

                                          {Kooser and Harrison}


When we think of the questions we ask children when first getting acquainted, children of friends or neighbors or co-workers, it's typically a bland and predictable litany. Do you like school? Are you ready for summer? What games or sports do you enjoy? What do you want to be when you grow up? It's a wonder kids don't write us adults off as imbeciles, with our dim-witted conversational imagination.

My dad, ever a kid at heart, used to ask a child how old they were. It was a ruse allowing my dad to land one of his favorite jokes. It went like this:

Dad: So, how old are you?
Kid: 7
Dad: Really? That's great. When I was your age, I was 8.

Worked every single time. The child was always bewildered, but at least she wasn't bored. This curve ball provided a welcome surprise and the excitement of going off script.

Of course, asking a child – or a grown man for that matter – what they'd like to be when they grow up can invite a wonderful conversation that explores hopes and possibilities and fears, the things we might be too timid to admit if we're sticking to standard repartee. 

However, at some point (and I wish we could locate this precise point and blow it to smithereens), we cease living with a roused imagination of what could be and we commence a life defined by an austringing vow of what we will never, ever be. We are wounded and angered by another's imperfections. A parent, sibling or friend shatters our emotional cocoon, our naiveté.  Some of us suffer a thing far more vile, something that must be named evil. Others of us run up against the dark or embarrassing side of a community or a system we had once accepted uncritically. We feel duped, disregarded or mauled. Even more perilous, we learn to hate something about ourselves, something we've come to believe is too foolish or too simple or too sensitive. We've been dismissed or scoffed, and we vow never again

In response (consciously or unconsciously) to these disorienting experiences, we promise to never be that. Ever after, far too much of our energy and far too much of our person exists in reaction to whatever that represents. 

Living in reaction to something means that this something defines our questions and our direction; it sets the parameters of possibility. Our vision shrivels to a myopic little square. Your life deserves far more than a square. If we fix our attention on what we're leaving, we'll never have a wide view of the vast terrain stretching ahead. Instead, we'll just keep looking back, and we're bound to only walk in circles, a loop with arcs round that single story. We can never forget (nor should we try) what we're leaving. It's part of us. For good or ill, it helped to make us. Along the way, we may even come to see some of our experiences in new, mature light. However, the past is only one fraction of who we become. There's so much becoming yet to do.

A good and courageous and free life won't be lived when you're trying to not-be. You have to be. Take whatever truths or scars your story has handed you, take them in and listen to them. And then go discover new ones.

In the Bible God enjoyed giving people new names. And these new names had little to do with whatever they were leaving and much to do with where they were going.

6 Replies to “Be is Way Better than Not-Be”

  1. Do you think that as a culture we spend too much time looking back! While I don’t feel much of my own life is spent trying to ‘not be’ I do feel as though I identify with the idea culturally. Almost a teen/child rite of passage; rebellion or something. Great post; and great joke from your dad…

    1. It’s an interesting question, Ben. I think we look back uncritically (shallowly, perhaps) far too much (without realizing it, in reaction, etc.). However, I don’t think we look back with depth and curiosity nearly enough (attentive to our collective history as well as to our own individual story that has shaped us, etc.)

  2. I just realized that my initial “question” ended in an “exclamation” point! It certainly reads funny that way. My apologies; it was done from my phone.

    I tend to agree–and hence was my question–that it seems we are often uncritical in our reaction against parents, government, old ways of doing things, etc. Looking back attentively, as you suggest, is more difficult and often requires acknowledgement that the former ways of doing life are not entirely wrong. Instead, they often just need a subtle shift rather than be overturned entirely.

    1. Sometimes, questions are the things most worth getting excited over – and I see and exclamation as a burst of excitement — ! (see, don’t you feel it?)

      And sometimes the subtle shifts are the hardest.

  3. Winn, I needed that this morning. Btw I can just hear your dad asking that question and see the smile on his face as the child looked perplexed. Made me smile thinking about it.

    1. Parrish, I needed it this morning too. My dad turns 69 today. I hope he tells the joke to a few more kids today.

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