Don’t you just love that song by The Faces, Ooh La La? It’s the one that goes, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t lived and should stop reading right now, look it up and listen. I guarantee your toe will be tapping almost instantly. Despite the underlying misogyny of the lyrics, the chorus is super catchy and universally relatable. Don’t we all wish that we could go back and speak to our younger selves? — show them the error of their ignorant ways; put them on the right path to success and happiness. Oh the things I would tell my teenage self.
Knowing that I probably just lost most of my readers in a fog of nostalgia and, for some, pubescent self-loathing, let me bring you back with a dose of reality: you couldn’t help your former self even if I provided you with a DeLorean, a flux capacitor, and a stretch of road to get you up to 88 MPH (a time machine). You think you could because you have analyzed your life to death (pun intended). If you are anything like me, you have sifted through the major experiences in your life and thought about the infinitely better ways life could have gone if you had just done things differently, or had a different attitude about life in general.
Sure, my life may have been drastically different if I didn’t have a crippling fear of any and every social situation as a teenager. I might have asked that girl out, or actually went to a school dance or two; I may have even been happier. But, that fear was a part of who I was, am, will be. And, it is only a drop (well, maybe bucketful) of the vast sea of biases, experiences, traits, and chemical connections that make up who I am.
The problem is that we are always looking at the world around us through those waters of our own persona. The images we see are reflected, refracted, and distorted through each drop. Trying to see who you “really” were or are or will be, is like sitting in a dinghy and trying to see the ocean floor by scooping buckets of water over your shoulder. The water is still there.
Therefore, that kid that you think you know so well (because, after all, it was you) is only an image of you seen through all the experiences and biases you have adopted since that time. You can’t help yourself because you can no longer relate to that image of who you were in the past. I think each of us would be surprised by the person we found on the other side of the time warp.
Perhaps more importantly, we can’t look at ourselves now without looking through the water. How can we assess who we were, when we can’t assess who we are? And, how can we know anyone else?
I am a big, white, heterosexual man. It took me a long time (longer than it probably should have) to realize that being a big, white, straight man in our world comes with certain advantages: I can walk downtown in most cities at any time of the night with little concern; I don’t generally have to worry about the prejudices of the person interviewing me for a job; I have never considered that someone else doing the same job as me could be making a great deal more than I am. I recognize these things now. I try to remember them as I go through life. But, though I sympathize with those that don’t have these advantages, I can never truly empathize. I do not see the world through the same waters as a woman, a gay man, or a Korean immigrant.
So, if we can’t really understand who we were in the past because we can only see them through the filter of the present, and we can’t understand others because we can only see them through the filter of our summed parts, what’s the point? Why don’t we just live our lives in the cocoon of our own understanding? It makes very little logical sense to pursue a goal when it is categorically unachievable. But, perhaps that is the answer in itself: the humility of knowing that we can never truly know each other or ourselves paradoxically forces us to buck against the ignorance of our own biases while accepting their limitations.
The point, therefore, is not to see the ocean floor, but to recognize the water in which we are floating. By accepting that we all have our oceans, perhaps our dinghies drift a bit closer together…or our oceans are all connected…the metaphor isn’t perfect.