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"Be what you is..." on the journey of self-discovery

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Wednesday, June 2nd, 2004 — In the Boothill Cemetery in Tombstone, Arizona, there is an epitaph that reads: "Be what you is, cuz if you be what you ain't, then you ain't what you is."

This piece of trivia appears in a book titled, "The Hero's Journey: The Life of Joseph Campbell," noted mythologist, scholar and philosopher. Those words of an old gunslinger resonated with Campbell. In their own way, they captured the mystery of the journey of self-discovery that appears throughout the world's mythologies.

Campbell calls this the hero's journey, as the individual is asked to move through "the initiation which is life" to bring forth something of her or himself that has never been experienced before.

I have been thinking about this process of initiation and discovery ever since a friend accused me of always trying to reinvent myself.

To me the term "reinvent" smacks of being caught up in a trendy craze. It connotes starting over from scratch, or worse, trying to be someone "I ain't."

My friend recalled career changes that have brought me practically 180 degrees from where I started. For her, this amounts to a wholesale "reinvention" of myself. From my perspective, however, this has been a journey -- more ordinary than heroic -- that did help me become more of "what I is."

Volumes have been written about such journeys of self-discovery. The proverbial Phoenix rises out of ashes; something dies, and something else lives -- usually something better, so long as we are on the right path.

But that's the rub. How do we know we are on the right path? We probably won't know until we have come through our particular initiation, decision or change.

Maybe the mythological gods get it right on the first try, but for gunslingers and other mortals the process of self-discovery usually bumps and grinds from one mini-initiation to the next.

Life is filled with transitions, and for me each one follows the same basic pattern: Something about my life is not right. I feel off kilter, agitated. I know I am not in my element. Something needs to change.

But what? How? Is it my environment or my attitude that needs changing?

For me it has helped to "reality check" my goals when I feel stuck. Often we are asked to break new ground to live in a way that both expresses and nurtures who we really are.

Aas a child I dreamed of being a doctor. I weighed every undertaking against this one dream. Long past the time when I might have made the dream a reality, I clung to it as a real possibility. I was held hostage by a dream that I could no longer realize. Until I let it go, I could not give myself wholeheartedly to anything else. Something had to die so my life could live.

There was another obstacle. I believed real women worked for a living, as in "outside the home." Real women have real jobs in the real world and they bring home real paychecks. They are the financial equals of the other half of the world. That sounded good to me. And then ....

Before long we had four children. I wanted to stay home with our kids, but hated to give up my life in the "real world." Once I let go of equating personal worth with a paycheck and a public life, I was able to find a more comfortable balance between home and work.

Each of us is on this journey of self-discovery -- the extent to which we participate by navigating the initiations that life sends our way is up to us.

Fear of failure can make us slaves to the status quo, just as not knowing what to do can entrap us. Should we stay put, or make a change? In Wild West jargon, the trick is to "know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em," in the words of country-western singer Kenny Rogers.

Either way, it is our willingness to take risks that matters. Even if we try and fail, we have at least succeeded in opening one more door of our lives. We learn more about who we are, and hopefully more about how we want to live.

The old gunslinger from Tombstone says it all for me. Being "what I is" is easier -- and much more fun -- than being what I ain't, in spite of the initiations it might require.