Yes, But How?

Emma, by Chuck Close: courtesy of Pace Editions

Become what you are.

—– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It would seem to be the easiest thing in the world, wouldn’t it?

“Become what you are.”

But if it were the easiest thing in the world, why would the wise and worldly Goethe have felt the need to proclaim it, and why would it be preserved by Google among famous quotations?

An obvious answer is that it isn’t so easy as it sounds. But why not? A couple of possibilities:

We’re all brought up from earliest days with expectations freely donated by family, friends, teachers and the like. We’re among the lucky ones if those expectations match up with our skills, aptitudes, and predilections. Often they don’t; but what do we know? We’re young, untried, inexperienced. We simply try harder and harder. We may actually succeed; and in the process, lose contact altogether with the self within who once upon a time spoke urgently to us.

That’s one possibility. Another lies in the very first word of Goethe’s injunction: Become. No one (I hope) believes any longer in tabula rasa, that we are blank slates at birth upon which anyone and anything can write what they will. But our genes do not produce finished products; they merely contain our possibilities. We’re not born blank slates, nor are we born as what we will ultimately be. We are always in the process of becoming.

We might say that at birth, we are first drafts, and then we spend our lives rewriting ourselves. (Well, if we’re writerly by temperament we might say that.) We’re never there, wherever there is. We’re always a work in progress, always experimenting, discerning, challenging, refining. It’s tiring. Get tired enough, and it’s tempting to give up, to freeze into a fixed position, and call it a day/life.

Those are two reasons I see for needing Goethe’s bracing dictum: Become what you are. Maybe you see other reasons; or maybe you feel that he (and I) are on the wrong track entirely. Whatever, let’s initiate a forum for your thoughts on identity and personality, perhaps even character, and how they develop.

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14 Responses to Yes, But How?

  1. Interesting thought…”Become what you are.” I think it’s true, though I don’t believe it can be done on our own. I agree that there are many clouds that hang over us during our lives — in the form of others’ expectations and perceptions of us, yet not without a “healthy” dose of our own false assumptions of what we can or should be — but what do we do to remove the cloud-cover, or at least make a hole in it so we can see the Son above?
    I think that is supposed to be part of the joy of life — finding out who we are by learning who we were designed to be, who God is calling us to become in Him. 🙂

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      “Yes, But How?’ is certainly about, among other things, how to remove the cloud-cover — to use your vivid image.
      Thanks for coming by, reading, pondering, and sharing your thoughtful response.

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  2. Therese Bertsch says:

    I think the business of life is to allow life to wash over us and in our response to become our “authentic selves”. Words fail, don’t they?

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  3. pauline says:

    Oh help! In reading about Goethe, I came across this similar quote –

    “If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”

    Another source attributes the quote, “Become who you are” (Was sagt dein Gewissen? — ‘Du sollst der werden, der du bist.’ What does your conscience say? — “You shall become the person you are.” Variant translation: Become who you are) to Friedrich Nietzsche (who also said, “To make the individual uncomfortable, that is my task.”).

    So now that I’ve muddied the water, I will say that ‘becoming what you are capable of becoming’ and ‘becoming the person you are’ seem to me to be two different constructs. It would not be hard to interpret the first. But if you are who you are already (and when is already?), then do you just become more of that as you go along? Or, do you constantly refer to your conscience, asking, Who (or what) am I now?

    Are we always becoming? The word ‘learning’ as our only function poses problems for me because it presupposes that we are unlearned to begin with and that seems to discount our innate abilities and our gut feelings. There are things I see myself learning – grammar, arithmetic, spelling, musical notes, how to make hospital corners on a bed, etc – and things I categorize more as remembering, or recognizing. These things are more conceptual, moments of aha! or oh yes!, moments of recognition, if you will.

    To become what we are capable of becoming would require constant change. To become what we already are would demand constant attention. To be what we are would also demand constant change, come to think of it, as our ideas of who and what we are change with our perceptions of ourselves through the eyes of others. Perhaps if we attempt both – to be and to become – we would force ourselves to examine our processes as well as our progress?

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Isn’t that nice? I don’t even have to try and say anything intelligent. You’ve talked yourself right through and out the other side, right into your last paragraph, the coming together. We are a process, we are in progress. No contradiction.
      And Yes, constant change. Or, if you prefer, keeping an open mind. (Easily said, not at all easily done.) To be open always to what comes— surely a Buddhist concept, it’s what Pema Chodron teaches and what I’ve found to be a wise and challenging teaching — requires constant effort. And as you say, constant attention. It isn’t that we can readily do these things. It’s a matter of, Do we strive to do these things? To live this way? That’s all we can do. The changing isn’t something we do, exactly. It comes about, usually little by very little, as a result of living a particular kind of way.
      I did come across the attribution to Nietzsche and have no real opinion (or information) about whose quote it actually is. I like the sound of the German, Du sollst der werden, der du bist.

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  4. pauline says:

    In response to your response…

    The ‘how’ is an individual undertaking. Yes, we’re all mightily influenced as youngsters – by parents, other adults, peers, events – but there usually comes a time in each person’s life (though perhaps never, perhaps multiple times) when it occurs to us to make our own connections between what we’re told and what we observe. It is then that we must decide what to do with these revelations. That is the place change occurs, yes?

    You go to cafes, I go for solitary walks, some go to church, others seek books, some simply latch onto the next thing that sounds good and don’t think their own thoughts at all. What we are, who we are, should not be static concepts but they become so when we refuse to entertain the possibility that opinions other than our own have merit, when we insist on arguing rather than debating, when we shut our open minds.

    To strive to discover the “right” path for us (by observation, questioning, and discourse, by reading, by thinking things through) and to remain attentive to what goes on in our heads and hearts in relation to what goes on in the world – aren’t those efforts the very things make us feel alive? We become what we think; we can become alert and voluble, full of ideas as bright and elusive as comet tails or we can become sheep. This is a world of relativity, of opposites, of push and pull. If we are to keep our balance we must constantly be who we are at any given time because of who we are. Today I am cymbals clashing, it would seem 😉

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Wow! Talk about opening out —

      You say: “but there usually comes a time in each person’s life (though perhaps never, perhaps multiple times) when it occurs to us to make our own connections between what we’re told and what we observe. It is then that we must decide what to do with these revelations. That is the place change occurs, yes?”

      Rather than making connections — I think, observing discrepancies, which makes for a decision point. Change can then occur … or not. Not is always an option. (You put it as, that time may never come.)
      I guess what was in my mind when I thought of the post was judging — learning to assess and judge for oneself, using whatever values turn out to be one’s own (again, they can simply be static values accepted as handed down) — and always being willing to change. That sounds nice on paper, but, judging by my own reactions, I am always ready stubbornly to dig in my heels before I’ll even consider opening to new ideas, suggestions, possibilities. My “process” involves LOTS of time and effort to get myself budging from that initial sticking point.
      But even more — as to change — Some people can be so alienated (sounds harsh, perhaps “disconnected” is better) from their own personal dreams and desires, etc., that they don’t even know what they are. So getting to recognize those, getting to the starting gate, as it were, is already a problem necessitating process. Sound impossible? I will testify to it.

      Maybe that explains better why this saying appealed so strongly to me from many long years ago when I first encountered it, more as a mystery than as an injunction.

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  5. Stef says:

    You articulated with amazing precision what I have been feeling in my life, but never quite putting into words: “We are always in the process of becoming… We’re always a work in progress, always experimenting, discerning, challenging, refining. It’s tiring.”

    It *is* tiring; and yet, I have felt driven all of my life to continue with the experimentation, questioning, challenging, exploring, searching. I knew I was tired; but I never knew why I just couldn’t quit. Now I have a better hint into the answer to that question.

    Thank you for giving me the words!

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