Mary Oliver’s, Upstream, is a book of many marvelous essays. One in particular stood out: Of Power and Time. This one is about the three selves in many of us:
- The Child Self
- The Social Self &
- The Eternal Self.
Reflecting upon the piece, I realized we should know this by now, and we probably do at some level, but it takes a clairvoyant writer to set it out so neatly.
The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. I completely identify with that. I am decades away from my childhood, but I can dip into it like I only just grew up. Everything felt keener and sharper as children, and that is part of the reason why The Child Self never really leaves us, I suppose. (Probably the reason why I forget the name of the person I met yesterday, but remember the names of my friends from when I was 5 years old : What is Time?)
While young, I yearned to grow up, and in the words of L M Montgomery realize that growing up is not half as fun as it is purported to be.
“That’s the worst of growing up, and I’m beginning to realize it. The things you wanted so much when you were a child don’t seem half so wonderful to you when you get them.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
The second self is the Social Self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executer. The one, in short, that most of us find ourselves trapped in for the most part of our lives. This is “the smiler and the doorkeeper” as Mary Oliver so elegantly puts it. This self I am familiar with: metaphorically the whirlpool, the swift horses of time, the minute keeper.
“This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made. Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned. What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.”
The social, attentive self’s surety is what makes the world go around as she says.
Then, there is the third self: The Creative Self, the dreamer, the wanderer.
“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary, it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”
The essay goes on explain the regular, ordinary self in contrast to the creative self. The Creative Self – the one that is out of love with the ordinary, out of love with the demands of time or the regular routines of life, is concerned with something else, the extraordinary. This is the self, she says, that makes the world move forward.
“The extraordinary is what Art is about. No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures it is seldom seen, It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes its solitude.”
The essay was eye-opening in many ways. For I know many, including myself, have to fill our days with the demands of the clock. It is also easier to be the do-er, so that we may not have to enter that difficult place of teasing, figuring and wrestling the extraordinary out; to give shape to the nebulous clouds skirting in the recesses of the brain.
There is nothing wrong with succumbing to the demands of the clock, but it is a valuable lesson to teach ourselves to take our brains for a tease and see what results, isn’t it? We may land up surprising ourselves if only we give it the chance.
The essay ended on this note:
“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.”
What do we do to ensure that there is enough time in our lives to ensure the nurturing of the Eternal Self? (Read: The Art & Charm of Shoshin) I don’t know the answer yet, but when I do, I shall hop on social media and share it right away.
A version of the essay is found here:
Mary Oliver: The Artist’s Task
Brain Pickings – The Third Self