The great e.e. cummings once said: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
It’s one of my favorite quotes in spite of the fact that at one point, I was on the wrong side of it. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it’s what led me to love.
In 2001, I flew over 100,000 miles, visiting places like Vegas, Tahoe, and South Beach for fun and places like Birmingham, Tupelo, and Macon for work. I was a financial services wholesaler, a white-collared gunslinger, clad in a tailored suit — armed and dangerous with my carry-on, the Wall Street Journal, and a frequent flyer card.
After the first full year at my job, I won my company’s highest honor for sales excellence, the Reach the Peak award — an all-expenses-paid vacation for two anywhere in the world. But in spite of my professional success, I was a personal train wreck, particularly in the romance department. I was king of the 6-month, dysfunctional relationship, always chasing the wrong girls. Looking back, I realize that it was partly because I continuously molded myself to become whatever it was I thought people wanted me to be. In so doing, I had morphed from a person into a persona and was dangerously close to losing touch with who I really was.
I cashed in my Reach the Peak award on a two-week South African tour. It was in that foreign land I began the long process of rediscovering myself. In that process, I was shocked to learn just how far off the course I had veered. I didn’t really want to be the kind of person I had become. I was ill-suited for the role of young corporate player and all the accoutrements that came with it. No. The things I wanted were much simpler than that. I wanted to fall in love, settle down, and have children. I also longed to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.
So in April of 2002, I quit my job and blew up my world. BOOM. Done. Eventually, I moved back to my hometown and started a small business with a former business partner. Shortly thereafter I re-met Caroline, a girl I had known since 1980, but one I had not seen nor spoken to in over a decade. I was coming off of (yet another) dysfunctional relationship, and she was emerging from the wreckage of an unsuccessful marriage.
We formed an immediate bond because we were both undergoing similar processes — finding out who we truly were. We formed an immediate bond because we both realized that e.e. cummings was right — to become who you are is, indeed, a difficult battle.
Caroline and I would never have worked out had we met earlier in life, in part because we both would have still been on the wrong side of that e.e. cummings quote. We would have both been too busy being who the world wanted us to be instead battling to be ourselves. Which is too bad. Because our true selves are suited perfectly for each other.
And somewhere in all of that is what I hope my children one day understand about love. That it starts with one person. Yourself. After all, love requires that you give yourself to someone else completely and totally. Yet how can you do that if you don’t even know who you are? Or worse, still, if you’re masquerading around as someone else entirely?
You can’t. At least not successfully.
Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.
Image: istock / © pamspix