by Charles Pastoor
When I was in college, I heard a lot about how life was a journey. People were always on a journey and they were typically looking for themselves. If they had the means or an adequate sense of adventure and were particularly ambitious, they went on literal journeys, wandering around Europe or South America, always in hopes of bumping into themselves and making their own acquaintance. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy; after all, back then the world population was a paltry five billion. But even with those odds, you might have to spend a long time sitting in that café in Paris (where supposedly everyone goes), watching the crowds milling about, before you spied yourself walking by. Plus, the self-seeking pilgrims always seemed to be striking out blind, without an address or phone number or even a general sense of what direction they should actually be headed in. One might take them to the airport and wave goodbye as they boarded their flight and watch the taillights of the plane as it veered south towards Santiago. But one always did so with the sneaking suspicion that their chances would be equally good or even better in Copenhagen or Chengdu.
I didn’t have the means or inclination to make any of those journeys, and I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t find myself anyway, my hunch being that I was neither wearing lederhosen and blowing an alp-horn in Switzerland, nor spear-hunting with the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, nor doing anything else of much interest. If I could have afforded such a trip or weren’t frightened by the perils of travel, I might have undertaken such a journey myself but with the opposite hope—that of getting away from myself, of leaving me behind on the southeast end of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But I knew that such a journey would be futile—with my luck, no matter where I managed to go, I’d be the guy who actually did manage to find myself, my own bad penny, or pfennig or pence. And there we’d be, stuck with each other, the one traveling companion I couldn’t shake because he had agreed to pay for our flight, the one whom I could only dream of ditching in a hostel in Budapest.
I don’t know if people still talk about finding themselves, but I suspect they are still trying to do it. And with the internet, self-discovery has become easier than ever, since there is always the possibility that you might be just a few clicks of the mouse away from . . . you. What with all the dating apps and websites that offer to help you locate your soulmate, it seems like there would be at least one that offers, for a minimal fee, to help you locate your soul. In the meantime, you can take all kinds of personality tests that help you figure out who you are, which should make it easier to find yourself, should it come to that.
A while back, I noticed that everyone on Facebook was taking quizzes designed to move the process along. Which character on Gilligan’s Island are you? Which 20th century autocrat? These quizzes helped you narrow it down, but they could also be confusing, especially since you might never have considered yourself to be a character on Gilligan’s Island or an autocratic statesman of the now-distant 1900s. As a child, I wanted to be the Professor because I figured he had the best chance of anyone on that island of seeing Ginger, the movie star, naked. But when I took the quiz, it told me I was Mrs. Howell, the millionaire’s wife. Francisco Franco probably watched Gilligan’s Island and lusted for Ginger just like I did. Had he lived long enough to take the quiz, he might have been forced to confront his internal contradictions as well, but how would I know? It turns out I am actually Pol Pot.
Then there are the personality assessments that take the whole business of discovering who you are a lot more seriously. Like many people, professional commitments have obliged me on several occasions to take the MBTI personality inventory. I’ve known people for whom this test is an absolute revelation. Finally, FINALLY, they could with scientific precision say who they really were: INTJ or ESTP or IDGS. The fact that there are only sixteen or seventeen categories to fall into simplifies everything, and it gives you a sense of belonging—a tribe of like-minded people not bound together by blood or religious or political belief. I’m an INTJ with a strong preference only for introversion. And I do feel a kinship with other INTJs, though I’ve noticed that we all tend to hate each other with an intensity and ferocity that is shocking to behold.
All of these quests for an identity seem quite useful to me, though, and it isn’t because any of us are likely to find ourselves in the byways of the worldwide web or tending yaks on the Tibetan plateau (unless of course we happen to be herdsmen on the Tibetan plateau) or anywhere else, at least not any time soon. Rather, the usefulness lies in the recognition, implicit in such a quest, that we are always both ourselves and someone else–the ones we are looking for and the ones doing the looking. We are, each of us, Henry Morton Stanley, bolos in hand, slashing our way through in search of Dr. Livingston, who is also each of us. I, for one, presume our Stanleys won’t find be finding our Livingstons, but that’s okay. Our scattered selves are like the bones in Ezekiel’s valley of vision. They may come together some day, but it isn’t because our tibias feel strangely and mysteriously connected to our fibulas (now hear the word of the Lord) and thus seek them out and find them. It will be another voice that binds them together, saying, “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’” Presumably it is when we hear that voice that we may come together, self to self and bone to bone.