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Oct 02 2014

Reinventing Yourself Regularly

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Sometimes I find the same basic idea in contemporary psychology and also ancient wisdom. So then I think there is a lot of truth in it. And then, when I find it in a quote by an artist I admire, I feel that I’ve found something  especially trustworthy.   Here is the quote:

“We have to invent and reinvent who we are

Until we arrive at a self we can bear to live with and die with.”


It’s by the poet, Stanley Kunitz and I don’t know how he discovered the principle. I hadn’t heard it elsewhere. Usually what I hear is “Be true to yourself.” How do we reconcile those two thoughts?

Kunitz died in 2006 at age 101. He was twice named as U.S. poet laureate.  Younger poets made pilgrimages to be with him. I’m sure her practiced what he preached. What he said applied to being a poet.

The more I thought about what he said, the more I felt that, if you have a love relationship and the two of you are building a life together, all that he said about being a poet is also true for being a partner.  What’s true of creating is also true of co-creating.

Here is where he starts. He said that you have to not care whether there is an audience. Your first task is to create that person who will write the poems.

So does that mean that in co-creating it doesn’t matter what your partner will think of what you have to say or do, you have to stick with your own judgment? You can’t be doing stuff just to please your partner. Not in the creative process, you can’t.  No matter what, you have to speak from deep in your heart.

You can’t be distracted.  As an artist you have to be prepared to have folks who won’t understand what you’re doing, who won’t approve of what you’re doing. But even if folks do approve, you can’t be swayed by trying to please them. You have to give your partner the gift of your truth. And if you can’t do that, well you have to downgrade the relationship to something less intimate.

An important teacher of mine, the late Robert L. Powers, used to say it this way: “In an intimate relationship, if your No isn’t solid, then your Yes isn’t either. “

It sounds a bit too much like saying “My way or the Highway,” like you are simply not open to negotiation. And in some case that might be right. Kunitz added another piece, though, and this modified his first instruction in an important way.  After he talked about how you have to invent yourself he went on to say that you also have to reinvent yourself, and you have to do this over and over.

We are imperfect, just like any work of art in progress. We have to know this. He said, “We have to invent and reinvent who we are until we arrive at a self we can bear to live with and die with. Art demands the capacity for renewal. Without it, art withers. And, of course, so does life.”

And if this is so in terms of your relationship to Art, how much more so is it true in relationship to that one person with whom you are going to love and build a life with?  If there was anywhere in life where you had to be at your creative best, this certainly is it. But it is such a challenging idea.

Then Kunitz expanded on that thought. He said that in poetry what you try to do with your life is transform it.  So this is very different from the idea that “I am who I am and if you don’t like it, you can find someone else.”

Fortunately Kunitz explained what he meant. He said that the transformation of your life meant that you are making a legend out of it. He used that word often, “legend.” That’s a high standard and maybe not everyone wants a relationship that is “legendary.”

A legend, he said, is “not an autobiography and it’s not a confession.”  A legend is a story that means something, a story worth re-telling.

Kunitz says “all the years you spend in writing poetry are years in which you are constructing a legend.”  In my research with Marilyn Bronstein, collecting stories from couples with great relationships we found that that all the years the partners spent together were years in which they created a story worth telling and retelling.

Also, when you make your life into a legend you become self-authoring. You become as responsible as possible for who you are and how you live. You’ve made moral and artistic decisions. In relationships that are legendary the authorship is shared, you become co-authors, collaborators.

In his advice to poets Kunitz said that if you didn’t get to that level of legend, you might have a lot of pretty things to say but nothing really all that interesting.  You could only get to the deep levels in writing by living at those deep levels.  The same thing is true in a romantic relationship. It has to continue in its complexity.

But how do we do this? How do we invent and reinvent who we are until we arrive at a self we can bear to live with and die with”?


And then, I re-encountered this same idea at the time of the Jewish New Year.

I didn’t  see it at first. For a while I was distracted by the non-mythological ways some talk about the Jewish New Year.  They said, that “God,” opens the “Book of Life” each year in the fall and “inscribes” your fate in it for the next year and much of what gets “inscribed” depends on the kind of soul searching you do over the Ten Days of Penitence.

As you can see by the quotes I don’t buy the concept literally and I also am close with a group of observant Jews who don’t like “all that God talk.”  It’s complicated but never mind.  I don’t mind talking about God the way some folks talk about Santa Claus. It’s poetry.  I know it’s not prose or science.

And if take that as poetry, then it means that for a certain time every year, it’s good to act AS IF I were examine my life in the presence of a very honest judge. And I do have a voice like in me.  At some level I really do judge myself clearly. I just don’t like to all the time. But I set aside these Ten Days of Penitence and deal with it. And that’s what Kunitz said one has to do in order to create art.

I spoke with a fundamentalist one time and he believed that “God” had it all figured out and then made it perfect in the first try. His “God” doesn’t make mistakes. (I felt he identified a bit too much with this perfectionism.) I myself prefer the Darwinian process. According to Darwin, creation is filled with experiments and revisions and this is a constant process.  And that’s also how art works. And I believe also how spirituality works. We invent stuff. We look at. We judge it. We reinvent until we arrive at a version we can be happy to live with and die with.  And it seems to me that this is how love works, too.

(This is unfinished, or could be edited more, but I’ll take my own advice and publish it anyway. Do feel free to comment. I’m quite curious about your responses.)

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One response so far

One Response to “Reinventing Yourself Regularly”

  1. Jackie Freedmanon 20 Feb 2015 at 8:08 pm

    I love the idea of life as a work of unfinished art. Through out our lives we are trying to get the picture just right. Like the quote by the poet, Stanley Kunitz, “We have to invent and reinvent who we are until we arrive at a self we can bear to live with and die with.” I am also part of the Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline Movement (I teach parenting classes), whose philosophies are based on Ruldolf Dreikurs and Alfred Adler. Nelsen promotes that mistakes are opportunities to learn. Nelsen and Adler have given me the courage to reinvent and discover my strengths and my potential to help the world be a better place. I noticed in another one of your posts that you sighted Adler and Dreikurs (I actually found you because I was looking for a quote by Dreikurs).

    Happy to say my husband of 27 years is on my journey with me; as I am on his journey too. I’m very blessed.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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