On the very day that I completed chemotherapy, I wrote an article about survivorship.
I explained in vivid detail the sights, sounds, pains and mental state of the cancer treatment process.
At the end of the journey, I noted quite simply that I was “still here”.
Cancer had not taken me, and I believed everything integral to myself remained.
An official year into my survivorship, I am recognizing the error in this thinking. I am not still ‘me’.
And as I work with people who state they are unable to ‘find themselves’, or note that they are unsure of who they are, I offer a new question after many months of pondering these very same thoughts: What if the reason we cannot find ourselves is that it is not really ‘us’ we are after?
Identity and selfhood can fluctuate and change every day.
I am a very different person than when I was a child – and reverting to this state would distance and infuriate those around me.
I am not who I was as a teenager, although she occasionally roars out in my fierier editorial pieces.
I may not even be who I was yesterday, because today I may make a decision or be exposed to an event that changes my selfhood dramatically.
Those who have gone through great changes in spiritual or personal development may similarly find themselves awake at night, wondering who they are. Likewise, trauma survivors often find they are stuck between desperately attempting to piece back their old lives, or bulldozing the foundation and hoping to erect a new selfhood.
Their identity has changed sometimes within a very short period of time – and enables us all to understand that who we ‘are’ is not as solid as we may imagine.
For most of us, reaching age 30 or so has allowed us considerable time to mellow away at our careers, so that one day we may suddenly question ourselves and our life purpose.
Indeed, ‘finding oneself’ appears to have become the mantra for the millennial generation as they seek out new cultural destinations, lush tropical beaches, or adrenaline-fueled adventures across the world.
But what are we really seeking?
You are already present for every single waking moment of your existence. If you are a human being reading this, you already are yourself.
For a time I felt stuck in a rut because my everyday existence no longer mirrored that of my pre-cancer self. I would putter about, murmuring how I felt ‘lost’ and that I couldn’t ‘find myself’.
But I am still clearly here, alive, and not severely brain damaged (as far as I know). So the earlier question remains: what we actually looking for when we say we want to find ourselves?
I recognize now my feelings of lost selfhood were due to my desire to return to a time I felt happy and hence, reinstate my sense of purpose.
I have come to understand that finding yourself appears to be akin to the journey to find true happiness. If you are not happy with your life, you may claim you feel lost.
If you feel you do not have a voice or your voice is pushed aside – you may lose sight of the voice it belongs to.
You may feel constant indecision regarding life changes or possibilities – which is often brought about by not being certain what true happiness could look like for you.
My suggestion is that ‘finding yourself’ is following your happiness. And not your average stand-up comedian ‘ha-ha’ moment; but that warm, genuine, lasting smile that seems to emanate its own spark into the world.
True happiness is like the ray of light peering through the clouds; radiant but silent, peaceful yet awe-inspiring.
For example, I recently did a guided meditation that encouraged one to seek a time they felt happy. I suddenly found myself transported to my old apartment in Orange County.
The wooden laminate glowed from the afternoon sun. A steaming cup of green tea sat before me.
One of my adorably tiny cats sat contentedly on my lap, purring itself into slumber. I could feel the heat of the rays of the sun touching my hands, my cheeks, my soul. I breathed in and sighed. I felt content. I felt at peace. I felt like I knew myself – and that my future lay before me like an open road.
As I came out of the meditation, I recognized the general themes of my happiness: peace, sunshine, comfort, company, being fully present in a timeless moment.
Since then, I have sought out ways to increase those types of moments. When the sun is out, I try to stand in it silently and breathe deeply, becoming aware of who I am in that space.
I have begun to meditate and attend yoga classes more regularly to find daily peace.
I have stopped telling myself to ‘put up’ with discomfort just to suit others – I have found some super comfy boots and don’t care how ugly they are, I wear them every day.
I seek out company now when I feel lonely, and relabeled it as ‘self-care’ time instead of ‘just socializing’. And of course, I write; because writing brings me a deep sense of peace.
In adulthood, we often associate safety with not taking new risks. Unfortunately, this often leads to unhappiness or feelings of being lost without an identity.
For most of our younger lives, we rapidly change locations, careers, learning methods, and were challenged daily in new schools or our first few jobs and relationships.
However, once we have settled into a career or daily pattern – the challenges fade, the monotony becomes ‘safe’, and we rarely venture outside of our comfort zone.
What we often forget is that much of our lives have been built upon taking small risks – then suddenly as adults, we feel there is too much to lose.
But we have developed into who we are now only because of our varied experiences. If we choose to stagnate, we lose sight of the challenges, blessings, annoyances or adventures that could shape who we may become.
I offer you this: our identities are based on change – refusing to change is actively refusing to grow.
The moment you refuse to believe that who you are is changeable is the moment you begin to feel stuck and lost.
It is time we accept that who we are is just as transient as that state of true happiness. Sunbeams are beautiful but they do not last.
We will have moments of true happiness, but then the clouds of our lives will cover them, unfold, and recover. But it does not mean we have lost who we are.
It just means the next time the sun shines through, it may be in a different place than before.