A friend once told me that a big part of her life turned out the way it did because her younger sister was a late riser. “Sunday mornings were a misery because my mother would be yelling at her to wake up to go to church and my sister would stay in bed. The more she stayed in bed, the earlier I began to wake up. I woke up earlier and earlier and then there were the hours to fill.” When I met my friend, she was a high achiever with a fat organiser and colour-coded post-it notes to manage her complex life.
Do you ever think about how much of your personality is “original” and how much of it has developed in reaction to the people around you? Like your mother’s friend who came home once without her husband and for the first time, revealed herself as willing to be chatty. For decades, you had thought of her as the woman who never opened her mouth who was married to the man who never shut up.
Now that I say it aloud, it sounds terrifying. Because who knows who all made our chutney selves. On the other hand, if you have to go have a relative self, you can also possibly go and relate to someone else and have another relative self?
As Maria Semple writes in her novel, Today Will Be Different: “There’s a phenomenon I call the Helpless Traveler. If you’re travelling with someone who’s confident, organized, and decisive you become the Helpless Traveler: ‘Are we there yet?’ ‘My bags are too heavy.’ ‘My feet are getting blisters.’ ‘This isn’t what I ordered.’ We’ve all been that person. But if the person you’re traveling with is helpless, then you become the one able to decipher train schedules, spend five hours walking on marble museum floors without complaint, order fearlessly from foreign menus, and haggle with crooked cabdrivers. Every person has it in him to be either the Competent Traveler or the Helpless Traveler.”
But sometimes the patterns are harder to unearth and you have risen early far too long to remember if you were ever not an early riser. Or it’s not just you. It is your whole community. You are the easy-going lot, compared to the people across the river. Or it is your whole type. All of you are supposed to be one way in relation to your metaphorical sister.
Fat girls are always so funny, said a good friend of my youth right to my grinning face. I almost took a vow to never smile again. We were deep in a discussion about the value of stereotypes right then but so what, as another friend pointed out to me while I was raging, that to fake being serious to fight being stereotyped would also be creating a self in reaction. That sobered me up. This was giving the whole “I am rubber, you are glue” curse a whole new dimension of stress.
After a while, though, I warmed to the idea. The idea of your being what you do—rather than having some original true and authentic self you can dig up like an archaeologist—is an idea that some of my philosophy-loving friends talk about often. And every time I hear them, I find it so deeply relaxing. The idea of being what you do also dynamites the idea that someone who does horrible things to you loves you. The idea of love as an action, not a feeling, liberates you from all kinds of sticky situations. You no longer have to worry about what someone truly intended, over and over again. I am not quite on board with that popular quote by the poet Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”, but patterns emerge rather swiftly when you are not creating an artificial wall between intentions and actions.
If we ever meet, remind me to tell you this long and hilarious folk tale about a clueless man who is haunted by a vengeful ghost and hence has to pretend to be a monk. Long story short: It ends with his having actual monk-like gifts and driving away the ghost. You do it long enough and you become less the ghost in the peepal tree and more the person sitting under it. With just a little ghost left behind to give you an attractive haunted look.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.