In a twist of irony, the absence of anything to find is the most substantial answer worth finding.
In 2017, comedian Jim Carrey offered a bizarre and confounding series of responses in an interview on the New York Fashion Week red carpet. Shortly thereafter, he doubled down in a followup interview with Sharon Waxman of The Wrap:
“As an actor, you play characters, and if you go deep enough into those characters, you realize your own character is pretty thin to begin with. You suddenly have this separation and go, “Who’s Jim Carrey? Oh, he doesn’t exist, actually.”
But it was in his initial red carpet interview that he really nailed the center of the bullseye:
“I don’t believe in personality. I believe that peace lies beyond personality.”
In both interviews, Carrey’s remarks were met with the kind of condescending eyes you may expect. His antics were perceived by his interviewers as just that: the outlandish antics of an over-the-hill 90’s A-lister chasing his glory days.
In our interview last week, Jacqueline Trumbull of ABC’s The Bachelor spoke eloquently about her time as a teenage exchange student in Slovakia.
"I like fiction writing, and I have this character named Casper. Casper is always chasing this feeling: around the next bend - that next adventure - that's where I'm going to find myself. And when I find myself, I'm going to be that guy wearing loafers and writing poetry in a cafe with a glass of wine, and I'm going to love that guy. And everyone else is going to love that guy too! But [in Slovakia] I wasn't writing any damn poetry! Where am I, you know? Which corner am I around?"
“Where am I, you know? Which corner am I around?"
That abbreviated clip from the interview is available here.
We spend our early lives believing that we’re in the process of becoming the person we are meant to become. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we’re asked. Before we can do long division, we have answers. An actor. An astronaut. In the case of Jacqueline Trumbull, “a coked-out ballerina.” Some day, it’s implied, we will become that person. Our metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly will be complete, and we will finally be ourselves.
And so we're all on this quest to identify who we are. The core of Jacqueline Trumbull is this specific person, who is different from the core of Will Conway, because he’s some other person. And those two people are unique and different from someone else named Jim Carrey, who is this other guy defined by these other traits.
We’re all our own people, uniquely identified by the things that make us, well, us.
Then, one day, we realize that we’re not quite anyone in particular.
Such a moment often feels like a failure. “I was trying to be a Harvard-educated lawyer, but now I’m a Central Missouri State-educated store manager.”
Even if we are the Harvard-educated lawyer, we wish we were the Harvard-educated lawyer who runs ten miles before breakfast. Our brains always find new reasons to strive. Our egos crave attention, after all. They insist on being the central project of our lives.
So let’s back up.
Who, precisely, was Jacqueline's Casper character chasing? Which version of Casper is the version that slinks into cafes in loafers with a ballpoint and a legal pad? Why is it more difficult than just slipping on loafers and buying a notebook and walking into a coffee shop?
The reason it’s difficult is different for everyone. Anxiety, some may say. Fear of rejection, others. Depression. Lack of inspiration. Financial limitations.
The reasons are endless.
But overcoming every one of those reasons requires a change to our current state. "Get rid of the anxiety," we say, "And then I'll finally be me." Finding ourselves, then, is a process of stripping away characteristics, not adding them.
We’ll come back to that in a minute.
When I quit my job, left my engagement and bought a one-way plane ticket to Colombia, I figured I should probably learn a bit of Spanish. I bought a couple packs of index cards from CVS and, like I did when I was twelve, I made flashcards. Common Spanish words and phrases. Verb conjugations for the present, past and future. The usual.
I discovered these little pearls of wisdom hidden in the idiosyncratic differences between languages. Whereas in English, you'd communicate discomfort with the temperature by saying “I am cold,” in Spanish you'd say, basically, “I have coldness.”
It’s such a subtle difference, but it means everything, doesn’t it? “I am cold” implies that my current state is synonymous with who I am. I’m cold and that’s my deal right now. I’m going to be cold until someone turns up the thermostat, and then I’ll go back to being Will.
“I have coldness,” on the other hand, implies a separation between myself and this feeling I possess. There is this human - me - and that human has this object - coldness - in his possession. It recognizes the fleeting nature of sensation.
I don’t have to be overcome by coldness. I can just be aware of this temporary state and recognize that it’ll change in the future. It’s a temporary construct I experience in specific moments. It’s a fleeting sensation, much like the sounds of birds chirping or cars passing or the warmth of the sun on my arm.
I am hot. I am cold. I am angry. I am sad. I am happy. I am outraged. I am offended.
Jacqueline told me that, while she did return from her trip to Slovakia with a certain kind of confidence, she didn’t come back having “found herself.” Not to her eye, anyway.
“I’ve never gone on a trip and come back and been like, yeah, I know who I am now.”
These mythical characters of our minds - these perfect Caspers crafting poetry in cafes - they are defined, in our mind's eye, by their permanence. They're defined by our desire to reach a static state of achievement, at which point we can rest in that coffee shop forever, writing increasingly banal poetry about the absence of struggle.
What Jacqueline was seeking didn't require the addition of new traits - loafers and a fountain pen. No, it required the removal of the mental obstacles preventing her from just walking into a cafe somewhere. But what she did find? Confidence. That was it! She had been an eighteen-year-old sheltered teen who didn't know how to use public transit in her own hometown. And there she was in Slovakia, figuring out how to shuttle herself across a foreign country in a language she didn't speak.
She learned that she's adaptable. That her core function can accommodate new situations. That her center is ever-changing at the input of new data.
She learned - without ever quite being able to articulate it - that who she is can change. That Jacqueline is just...
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing attention on the present moment and recognizing all that rises within it as simply that: the rising and falling of sensations in the present moment. An elbow itches. A car passes on a distant street. A bird chirps. A thought arises.
A thought arises.
Is that the same as a bird chirping? At first appearance, maybe not. At first appearance, it may seem to have the character of you, the thinker in the center, thinking a thought of your own volition. It's a verb in the active voice. I am thinking.
But let's try again. Sit right there, where you are, and try not to think.
No, I mean it. Really, really try. Humor me an earnest twenty-second effort of thinking no thoughts at all. I'll wait.
I lost you, right? Maybe you thought about what I've written so far. Or maybe you forgot you were reading altogether. Maybe you recalled that fight with your sister or your brain dusted off a long-buried embarrassment from grade school. Or maybe it was something more trivial. Maybe, just for the shortest of moments, you remembered the laundry you left in the washer.
But did you do anything at all? Except lose yourself to the experience of thinking? Did you proactively - intentionally - give rise to this idea that we both agreed you were trying to suppress? Or did it arise as naturally and as absent your control as the humming radiator in your living room?
There are all sorts of ways to drop behind experience itself and realize that this thing that you call you is really just the container of experience itself. Meditation is the most obvious and popular. Psychedelics are another. But then there are these flow states of hyper-focused attention that aren't precisely designed for this realization, but by which the realization can happen nonetheless. Researching. Running. Acting. Traveling.
Intense attention - no matter where that attention is focused - yields the recognition of the absence of anything except attention itself.
We quest to find ourselves. We quest to seek out that firefighter, that astronaut of our youthful fantasy. We seek this fully constructed human with personality traits and confidence we don't yet have.
But, the quest has never ended in the merging of two characters. It has ended when one recognizes the other doesn't exist. When you recognize that you don't exist at all. And, in that recognition, we earn freedom. We can recognize that the canvas is completely blank and, in the words of Jim Carrey, "you realize your own character is pretty thin to begin with."
Terrifying? Maybe. But it means that you can show up in Slovakia tomorrow as whoever you want to be. You can be confident in knowing that the whole world is available to you. You can simply rest in this state of merely observing, or you can fill in the blanks as you wish.
"Where am I, you know?" Jacqueline said. "Which corner am I around?"
"Peace lies beyond personality," Jim replied.
Go grab the loafers, Jacqueline.
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