Click to Expand Sidebar

Oct 02 2014

Reinventing Yourself

Published by at 3:10 pm under Knowing Relationships BLOG

escher hands



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? How do we reconcile “being true,” with “reinventing?”

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 he practiced what he preached. In the quote, he was talking about how he became a good poet.

The more I thought about what he said, the more I felt that it also applied to becoming a good  partner. 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. Maybe that’s the connection with “you have to love yourself.” You  have to create the version of yourself that you want to be in a partnership.

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? Does it mean you have to stick with your own judgment? Maybe so. 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.

As an artist you can’t be distracted by your audience. You have to lead them.  So, inevitably, as an artist you have to be prepared to have folks who won’t understand what you’re doing, and others who understand but don’t approve. And furthermore,  even if folks do approve, you can’t be swayed into just 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 certain, then your Yes is always in doubt. “

It sounds a bit like you are simply not open to negotiation. That would be true if your Yes was mere rigidity. But no. Your yes and your no are positions that you have to arrive at thoughtfully.  After Kunitz 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.

Few works of creation are totally perfect. Most are works in progress.  Poets often say a poem isn’t finished, it’s abandoned. Michael Cunningham, a great living author, told a story about being in a book store, taking one of his own books off the shelf, reading the first page and right away, seeing sentences he wanted to change.  It’s the same with thoughtful sensitive people. We know we could have done better. Kunitz’s answer?  He said it’s a good quality. 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 true about Art, how much more so is it true about our relationship to that one person with whom we are going to love and build a life?  If there was anywhere in life where you had to be at your creative best, this certainly is it. .

Kunitz e said that in poetry what you try to do with your life is transform it.  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.”  He didn’t define it further. I think, when he said, “legend,” he meant 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. We also know that couples who tell their stories to each other regularly go deeper and deeper into those stories and when they do, they fall more in love with their relationship.

By telling and re-telling we are inventing and re-inventing. It’s a natural process. In more work with folks I help them do that more deliberately and it makes a different. 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.

A relationship is a story told by two.  The authorship is shared. The partners are  co-authors, collaborators.

Kunitz said that if you want to be a poet and you don’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. You have to share very deep truths.

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, just this year, I saw that this same idea is embedded in the Jewish observance of the New Year.

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.

And if take that as poetry, not prose or science 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.

I noticed an interesting parallel, too.  The Jewish New Year corresponds to the time marked in Astrology as sun in Libra, the scales. The symbol goes back to ancient Egypt when it was said that each person’s heart was put on a scale and weighed against a feather. So, you had to find ways to lighten your heart or your fate in the coming year would be heavy on your heart.  And this is so close to inventing and re-inventing yourself.

At some level I really do judge myself. I don’t like the advice that says “don’t do that.” That’s not good advice. For myself, and in my work with others, I said, “Do it. Judge yourself. But do it wisely and with generosity.”  And furthermore, don’t do it all the damn time.  There is a time for everything. Sometimes you produce. Sometimes you revise. 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.

(I think I’d revise this more, but I read the article and think it has to be enough for now. Do please comment. I’m curious.)


Recent Posts:

Post to Twitter    Send article as PDF   

One response so far

One Response to “Reinventing Yourself”

  1. TDNon 03 Jan 2015 at 2:42 pm