Absolem’s Question

September 21, 2013


One of the memorable characters created by Lewis Carroll in the Alice in Wonderland story is the hookah-smoking blue caterpillar with the name of Absolem.  In Alice’s encounter with him he sits atop a large mushroom and blows smoke rings in her face as he asks the question “Whoooo are Yooooou?”  When she answers “I’m Alice” he responds “we shall see” – “what do you mean by that – I ought to know who I am” “yes, you ought, stupid girl”.

How would you respond to Absolem’s question.  Who are you?

Are you the name on your driver’s license?  Are you the roles you play (father, mother, son, daughter, boss, employee, friend)?  Are you your job title? Your political affiliation?  Are you part of the 99% or 1% in the occupy movement?  Your physical characteristics, gender, skin color, nationality?  Your Facebook profile?  You ought to know who you are, but do you?

Well the answer to question “who are you?” may come as a surprise.   In the movie “The Matrix” the main character Neo is given the choice between a blue pill and a red pill.  The blue pill guarantees the subject will remain blissfully unaware of reality but will be happy.  The red pill will reveal reality and how things really are – and may not be a happy result.  Morpheus says to Neo: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
According to neuro-scientists our identity resides in a little area of our brain right about where you would wear a ponytail. And the neuro-pathways that make up our identity are stories that we have made up about ourselves.  So who we are – all we are – are a series of stories we have made up about ourselves.  Now to some of you this may be really bad news.  Who you think you are is just made up – it’s not reality with a capital R.  Your identity doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world – only in your imagination.  You are a fictional character.   Now granted, your stories are made up from things that are true about you – your relationships, your job, where you live, etc.  But the interpretation of what those facts mean is all made up.  Being married is a fact – Being married to a jerk is made up.  Weighing 250 pounds is a fact.  Being unattractive and unlovable is made up.
Now Buddhists, mystics and other gurus of the inner landscape have known this for centuries.  The goal in their practices is to strip away the stories to get to the true “I” that is the one observing and creating the stories.  Once the stories are stripped away one can see reality as a blank canvas and without the stories the “I” merges with this blank reality and becomes one with it.  Stories in this sense are what create separation from reality with a capital R.  Rewarding as this is, most of us have not established the habit of daily meditation and can’t see through our stories.  Our stories are like the water our fish brains swim in.
Where do our stories come from?  A lot of our identity is created from who others say we are – especially when we are young.  I have twin daughters now age 12.  Since they were infants to this very day I ask the question probably multiple times a day “are you the sweetest thing in the whole wide world?” to which they both answer yes.  Now even if there were only 2 of them – let alone 7 billion other people on the planet they both couldn’t be the sweetest thing in the whole wide world.  It’s not literally or logically true.  But in my world and their world it is creating a story of who they are.  Parents have a major impact of forming the identity of their children.  They are defenseless and don’t know any better than to take the parents word for it.  The biggest gift a parent can give a child is a healthy sense of self.  A self that is confident, considerate and capable.  In the movie “The Help” Abilene, the caretaker to young Mae Mobley tells her “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” with the hope that it will offset some of the negative messages she is getting from her mother.   Children believe what we tell them.
Our identity is also formed by how we interpret things that happen to us.  One formative story for me took place on the baseball field.  I grew up with five sisters and would rather play with them or play the piano than go outside and play baseball with other boys.  My parents, doing what they thought best, signed me up for little league.  I didn’t know how to catch, throw or hit the ball so needless to say I was the MWP (most worthless player) on the team.  The other boys didn’t want me on the team and I was bullied.  The story I made up about this was that for some reason I was abnormal – there was some fundamental flaw.  My parents wanted me to be normal and were doing their best to make me normal.  I failed – something was wrong with me.  It wasn’t just a case of not being good at one thing (baseball) I was defective, a failure, and incompetent.
But there is good news in all this.  Since we are stories we have made up about out ourselves we are not stuck with stories that are not working for us – we are not sentenced to live out a story we no longer want.  I am not sentenced to be defective, a failure and incompetent.  I can rewrite my baseball story to say I wasn’t trained to throw, catch and hit.  If I was trained, maybe things would have turned out differently.  Or I can say I don’t really care about baseball and I don’t really want to do what it takes to be good at it.  I am probably not a very good ballet dancer but I don’t care.
Psychologists call this identity story making a “personal narrative”.  They have analyzed personal narratives and how they correspond with mental health.  One interesting finding is the idea of what they call “agency”.  Agency is how much the main character in the story (you) is in the driver’s seat.  How much control the main character has in his or her own fate.  The stronger the agency, the stronger the mental health.  The opposite is the victim story.  The main character is batted around by circumstances and is powerless to do anything about it.  The victim can let themselves off the hook by blaming other people or circumstances for who they are and what they have become.  Armed with this knowledge we can begin to examine and critique our own stories and create ones that have us showing up as powerful in the shaping of who we are and what we can become.
Byron Katie is a speaker and author that teaches a method of self-inquiry called “the work”.  It is as simple as asking 4 questions geared to break through beliefs and stories that are not working for us.
Is it true?
Can I absolutely know it’s true?
How do I react when I believe this thought?
Who would I be without the thought?
After Absolem says to Alice “you ought to know who you are stupid girl” he unrolls the oraculum which is a graphic display of a calendar of the future which shows Alice slaying the Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day.  At this point Alice doesn’t know herself to be someone capable of such a feat.  She doesn’t believe it to be true.  As events unfold and more and more characters let her know she is the one she starts to believe the story and lives into it.  Absolem knows who Alice really is and calls her stupid because she can’t see it.
So who are you?  What stories are worthy of you and this one life you are given.  We are given agency over our stories and how we interpret what happens to us.  You is kind. You is smart. You is important.  See yourself as the hero of your own stories – because you are.

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