“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”
— Malcolm X
I am awed by my six-year-old niece Rafa‘s most recent drawing, which she captions “I’m happy that I’m me.”
She’s at a phase when she can spend one whole afternoon just drawing, sometimes superheroes, like an effeminate-looking Superman, sometimes mythical creatures like mermaids and witches, mostly regular girls.
I’m a little worried that because we are very close Rafa might grow up a bit materialistic and superficial. I’m a magazine editor and sometimes I take her to fashion shoots, where she gets her basic course on the likes of Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Bulgari, and sometimes we go through my copy of Vogue together.
I do not deny that magazines can be materialistic and superficial, at least in the context of marketing and advertising, but they are still worthy vessels of the written page, the picture page — and we all know the power of words and the visual. The magazine people — the editor, the photographer, the writer, the artist, and, lest we forget, the publisher — have all the power in the world to take the pages beyond the superficial and the materialistic without going way over the head of the reader or losing him or her at the first sentence.
But the question is: Are we either one or the other? This question first confronted me when, having just been appointed editor in chief of a magazine for the affluent Asian in my early-twenties, I started dabbling in meditation and New Age philosophies. So I was doing one thing at work, exploring, pursuing, showcasing, promoting material wealth, and the other thing outside of work, seeking inner happiness, mystical growth, non-material and infinite riches. Was there a dissonance? Would I have been more effective an editor, more fulfilled even, if I allowed neither the intellectual nor the spiritual to color my view of earthly achievement and worldly possessions? Would I have been better at my job if I looked at my first pair of Ferragamos as no more than a shoe or an investment piece for my numerous outings, rather than a figment of imagination, an expression of human creativity, a throwback to gentler, more glamorous times, a step toward a better future?
Maybe, maybe not. But this is me.
But what is me? Who am I? That is the question.
I read somewhere that everything we do and aspire for — a blog like this, an investigative report, a poem, the corner office with a view of the city, a space in the society pages, a potential mate, money in the bank, Paris or Tokyo, the Hermes tie for next week’s Christmas Eve dinner — is in pursuit of an answer to the question “Who am I?”
In some writing how-tos, the authors often urge us to find out who we are, to be firm about who we are so we can write from the bottom of our hearts, from our very soul. But who are we? Who are we right down to our souls?
Maybe we are one thing today and another thing tomorrow and maybe we will never be the same again on any day after that. Maybe we are this and that and more at the same time, physical yet non-physical, rich and poor, male and female, strong and weak, happy and sad, sane and mad, brave and fearful, wise and foolish, hero and villain — everything, depending on how open we are to exposing ourselves to all manner of stimuli.
Does it even matter that we know who we are? Are we better off not knowing so that our life will be one great experiment, a vast exploration of a million and one possibilities?
When we decide who we are do we put ourselves in a box? Or do we simply narrow down the choices? Is it possible to even narrow down the choices without limiting our potential?
Ask me who I am and immediately I tell you my name. How ironic that the first thing I tell you about who I am did not come from me, was not even chosen by me. These words, these names, this combination of letters, to be associated with me throughout this lifetime, were assigned to me by fate, by my parents, by circumstances I had no control over, maybe even by an uncle or an aunt or a friend of my parent’s, who knows? My father named my sister after the the battlefield nurse in Boris Pasternak‘s Doctor Zhivago.
So who am I? Shall I wrap the year with a shortlist of answers? The last time I pondered this question I ended up quitting my job as lifestyle editor of a newspaper daily. A friend, who was named after Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, took me to dinner and posed the life-changing question, “If you are not an editor, who are you?”
I was back in the same post in the same newspaper daily after four months of soul-searching and I stayed there for the next six years. I am an editor to this day, but that’s not who I am.
So the question remains unanswered. Maybe I shouldn’t even try and find an answer and, even if I should, maybe there is no answer, or the answer, should I find it, will not be absolutely true.
Maybe I am who I am, depending on the weather, depending on who I’m with, what I’m reading. When I’m done with Marcel Proust‘s Remembrance of Things Past, would I be a different me?
I’ll tell you when I finish my three-volume copy, which, as I bought it over twenty years ago, I doubt, I ever will.