The Journey series
This week's Mustard Seed begins a look at who we are. You can be whatever you want to be is commonly promised to motivate people. It is not true.
For the first nine months of our existence we don't have a capacity to want. We reside inside our mother. Her choice of partner, activities and diet, affects what we will be. Her circumstances and environment impact our development. Her health and emotional state determine which hormones run through us.
As infants, we still do not want anything, rather, we do not want distress. We cry in reaction to uncomfortable sensations. Our caregivers then assess whether our distress is due to hunger, gas, poopy diapers, or something else and determine what we need. We have not learned to want. We can achieve nothing for our self.
It is not until well after we leave our mother's womb that we learn to want. We must first experience our environment and form associations. We must learn to control our motor functions. We must learn that if we push our spoon over the edge of our high chair it will drop to the floor and Mommy will come to pick it up. We must learn that if we mimic certain sounds Mommy and Daddy will smile at us and cheer. We must learn permanence, consistence, and cause and effect. But we still won't want to be anything.
It takes several more years for us to learn that our communities operate by people contributing in various capacities. We learn that, to remain in a community, we are expected to contribute in some way. Only then are we able to imagine what type of contribution we might offer. By the time we face that decision we bear many physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and sociological traits, unchosen by us, that constrain our choices.
Some restrictions can be overcome by effort, others can't. A favorite maxim of the basketball coach at my sons' high school was You can't teach tall. No amount of desire or effort will prevail in a five-foot-two college student's struggle to captain the LA Lakers. Desires that lie too far outside what we are by nature, nurture, or circumstance are delusional.
Some restriction reside not in the nature of the self, but in the nature of the role. Every four years many people strive to become the president of the United States. Only two wind up on the ballot and only one is elected. Who becomes president depends not on what the candidates want, but on what the voters want.
Circumstance often trumps desire. Many are thrust into or denied roles by unforeseen events. Years of effort may be thwarted by chance encounters with fate. Sometimes we find our self doing what must be done not because we want to, but because we are there when it needs to be done. Acts of nature or the deeds of others often prevent us from being whatever we want to be.
The multiplicity of roles we must play further complicates our quest to be whatever we want to be. We must satisfy many roles – there are even roles within roles. Husband, father, provider, mentor, friend, and neighbour. All are worthy goals and each takes precedence according to time and circumstance. We cannot be all things at all times. We must juggle our efforts in response to the vagaries of our environment more often than than according to or desires.
It may seem a pleasant platitude, but being whatever we want to be is not attainable. Those who chase that dream find it's a moving target. As we approach our wants, they move on to become bigger and grander – and farther away. Always just beyond our grasp.
Next week: How to Be What We Want to Be.
Peter T Elliott