by Jacques Juillard
translation Louise Thunin
Jacques Juillard describes a quest for self, an identity that is difficult to define, since it involves movement through time and cannot be grasped.
Do I exist in an everlasting way? Does something that I could call “me ” exist over time? Does some unique, identifiable strand run through the course of my life? Does the answer to this question depend on my faith?
So here I am this morning, with, in hand, a yellow photograph of a baby, who, according to legend, is none other than I. What does he have in common with the elderly man I have become, apart from his name ? Proust speaks of the people, different from and foreign to one another, that we become in the course of a lifetime. And yet I would like to believe, perhaps intuitively, that something or someone is hiding behind the multiple appearances, beneath the numerous experiences which never cease changing me. Does a unity of life between birth and death exist somewhere in me or outside of me, in God, perhaps ?
Two songs come to mind. One is by the actress of Danish origin, Anna Karina, with this refrain : “ Remember me, little Viking girl; it’s your life that I have lived; I can’t live without you. ” The other one is by Anne Sylvestre, “The Child Who Weeps in the Bottom of the Well“, with, near the end, these lyrics : “We each have our well where a tender child dies; we hear her weeping at night without ever really understanding.” And, in conclusion, this painful outcry: “Oh, please, wall up the well, I can’t bear to hear her any more.” In these two songs, a child in me, who is no longer me, is calling me, with, in the first song, the wish to reunite with me, while in the second to break with the person I used to be, and in both cases, a child I do not recognize. Perhaps our original identity, if it exists, is still there, hidden in the depths of a well where it forges us from within without our desiring or realizing it.
As far as I’m concerned, I continue to try and believe in this identity, in this unity of existence. What can we base it on ? The body ? Of course not! Everything in it is subject to constant transformation ; nothing physical, as time goes by, is left of the little girl, the weeping child, other than sometimes something in her eyes or something we call DNA. Memory ? Its worth is dubious and its weaknesses apparent, even if it lurks in our depths. Personality ? It also changes; it creates itself little by little out of our experiences, with gains and losses, and this until the end. Or is it only in our subconscious mind that our identity remains ? It hides and reveals itself in dreams, which perhaps express the real unity, the real contuinuity of existence which founded it, maintains it, builds it up, beyond or within the conscious ”me“ that we would like to be. That which constitutes a human being over time is, perhaps, precisely that to which he or she has no access.
It’s others who often make us think that we stay the same. It’s easier from the outside to define us, to identify us. It’s they who hold in their hands the singular thread of our lifetime. We can also self-construct from an image that we try to conserve or create. This may come from our parents, from what they projected onto us, or from a real or ideal model or even an anti-model. This constant self invention helps us to believe that we exist as individuals.
Indeed, some people, in order to avoid the tension between past and present, seek their identity outside of themselves, via all sorts of evasions, games or roles. But this quest for a sort of exo-identity is not without danger, once reality claims its own.
There is another solution; lighten the weight of the past, draw the curtain on our anxiety about the future, and plunge, fully aware, into the present.
This is the call, so popular in our day, to inhabit completely the present moment, rather than to flee forward, or backward, or elsewhere, into virtual reality. Thus, either we find ourselves, for we exist only in the here and now, or we are freed from worrying about our identity, at least for a moment. But, when suddenly a piece of our past erupts in our present, we are cast out of our places of refuge.
Am I only an illusion, born of the fear of being nothing, or just a fragile set of various experiences, linked to one another by chance, without unity or resonance ? And why am I haunted by this narcissistic question, which rarely preoccupies me? Normally, my connection with others, with nature, with beauty, with everything that makes up my daily life, is fully sufficient. What really happens inside me when I look at the past and question the life path in which I do my best to believe? Here, of course, I can speak only of my own experience, of what comes up when the question imposes itself on my consciousness.
It comes when I’m weary of feeling lost, of escaping from myself, of running ahead without a glance back and without paying attention to where I’m going; or it comes when sharp fragments of a sublimated past resurface without warning and wound the present, or when an unexpected death obscures the horizon. That is when I start seeking where I come from, where I’m going. It is when I start clearing my path, figuring out at what point I lost my way, trying to find myself in that uncertain and fragile conglomerate that I keep on referring to as myself.
Who am I ? From time to time, looking back thrusts me into worried questioning. What is left of my past other than random slices of life, debris of memories floating on an ocean of forgetting ? All old people experience this: faraway bits and pieces return with age; the more recent ones fade and scatter. It is no longer a path that I seem to perceive but rather a track of waves from one island to another, from one rock to another in a great sea; the bridges I invent seem so flimsy. From the slow voyage of my years, is anything left other than heterogeneous objects still afloat, until everything goes under?
I know some elderly people whose insatiable quest is to reassemble faraway memories, to try and experience anew the feelings and savors of the past, thus hoping to rebuild the foundation of an existence and stride across the ravines worn by the erosion of time.
Still, I believe in and feel this deep unity, beyond forgetting. Is it not made up of the void that my spirit is traversing, of the space-time continuum that rolls me along and changes me ? That which makes up my life in its duration, is it not rather the passing wind that blows through my hours, my years, my existence and even my death, a grand voice from a great distance and depth that still sings within me and holds me in joy ? I must humbly recognize that what I call my existence in its origin, its development and its destination remain unknown to me. My act of faith consists in believing that it exists, that a force within me and outside of me knows it: a mysterious presence that forgets nothing and makes of my life a trajectory headed towards the future. I must accept a moving identity, floating, indecisive, vulnerable to whatever arrises. I must overome the fear of losing myself on the way and accept the lightness, accept that I’m travelling towards the unknown, yet supported by trust and enlivened by hope.
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