You’re two people, the scheming little bastard I saw so easily and the fine intelligent boy underneath that your grandfather, bless him, saw. But you’re coming of age soon and you’ll have to choose. A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others. -The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
I went into a vintage clothing store and pulled an old blue, Levi’s jean jacket off the rack. It felt sturdy—like it’s seen some shit. I could tell it had spent a lot of time in the backseat of classic cars and at the frontlines of Vietnam protests. At least that’s the history I projected onto to it.
C.C.R was playing in the store and the clerk gave me one of those slight nods that said, “lemme know if you need anything.” He was twisting wax into his mustache and wore a top hat and suspenders. I wondered how a guy dressed as an evil train conductor from the 1800’s could still look cooler than I ever have in my life.
I put on the jacket and looked in the mirror. I could see myself wearing it out in the desert somewhere, leaning against an old Ford mustang—bad moon on the rise. I don’t know why I was in the desert or whose car it was, but I had already picked out the perfect Instagram filter for me and my new jackets life together.
Then reality hit me like a time traveling bullet train. I saw my pants in the mirror—too new. My shoes—too safe. Buying the jacket suddenly felt like a big commitment. I’d need more vinyl records before I’d feel right wearing it. I’d probably need to start smoking cigarettes—American Spirits, maybe.
The store clerk gave me another nod, “We’ve got beard wax too.”
There’s the story of the French philosopher, Diderot. He lived a happy and humble life until the day he bought a beautiful scarlet robe. Once he put it on the rest of his belongings felt out of place and he squandered away a fortune replacing everything he had until it all matched the beauty of the robe.
I saw Diderot in the mirror and took off the jacket.
I used to find comfort in the saying, “We’re all works in progress.” The idea that identity is a moving target; that we’re all curating our own museums of self—collecting and discarding traits and ticks, ideologies and perceptions, faces and fashion statements.
But I’m almost 30 years old and I always thought that by now the cement would be dry. Shouldn’t I have a more finalized version of who I am? Why am I still playing Halloween in scarlet robes?
Borges wrote of the divided self and Freud is still peddling his Ego Ideal. Literature and psychology have declared: We are who we are and we are someone else.
The older I become, however, the more I feel the need to murder the others—to kill off my arsenal of faces. There’s an urgency to strip myself down and replace schtick with substance. I want to see the finish line and stand strong as one unified version of self.
Am I crazy?
For better or worse, I’ve never needed a vintage clothing store to try new personas on for size. I’m adaptable to a fault. I don’t have a spirit animal, but the chameleon comes to mind. Either that or some type of oceanic sponge. I pick up accents faster than you can say “linguistic appropriation” (yeah, that’s a thing) and my best mannerisms all had previous owners.
It’s not that I engage in some sort of premeditated theft of identity, but I will admit to the crimes of my inner Zelig.
I like to think that we all shop around, especially when we’re young. I remember seeing that one guy in school—the one with all the jokes. Everyone loved that guy. “Sure, I can do that,” I’d tell myself. But hey what about that other guy—he hasn’t spoken in two years and every girl is in love with him. “Ok, that’s the one. No more talking.”
If you ever struggled to fit in as a kid you probably stumbled across the terrible advice, “just be yourself.”
That old cop out is as unhelpful as it is confusing. Because the truth is we’re all just a muddled mix of outside stimuli and a shape-shifting average of those we spend the most time with.
It’s not that we can’t ever reach true authenticity, but most of us become many different people before we get to be ourselves. The path to being original, or genuine, is almost always littered with years of imitation and forgery.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t have time to make them all yourself.” Though, I’d argue that, when it comes to “finding yourself,” feeling the weight of your own missteps is necessary.
When I was 15, I dyed my blonde mop of hair jet black. The reason? The only good reason for anything—I met a girl. She said in passing I might look sexy with dark hair. What she failed to mention was that I should probably also do something about my bleach, bright eyebrows or else I’d be forever haunted by yearbook photos (which I am).
Growing up, we all had moments where we saw what we didn’t want to become. Whether it was shortcomings in our parents or teachers—or other villains of youth—there were times we said, “I’ll never end up like that.”
Now I’m not saying one must cross over to the dark side before they can find the light, but often times it takes seeing that face in the mirror you swore you’d never wear before you realize the true importance of killing it off.
If we look at Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey, we know that before the Hero can return home—having changed for the better—they must first pay their heavy price. And whether that’s hairstyles that haunt or becoming what you once hated, it’s feeling that weight that shows us what living a life with or without virtue might actually mean.
So, if the quote that began this article is true, and “a man is only one,” then which others do we kill? My moodiness and insecurity have kept me company for years but have become too much to drag along. Can I still wear them around the house when no one’s home?
And while I still find it exhausting—the slow moving, nonlinear refinement of me—I recently found a different, Zen quote that may hold the answer:
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
Which I take to mean as: When you think you’ve found enlightenment, you better keep looking.
The idea that, “a man can only be one” is a myth. We may murder the others, yet it’s once we believe we’re finished—when we think we’ve met the Buddha—that we’re in real trouble.
The divided self will always exist because we need an internal critic. The Ego Ideal is there to keep us striving. And it is in the striving itself which holds the rewards of who we are and who we might become.
For me to want to rush to the end and be finished? I am crazy.
The virtues that are truly worth pursuing—love, wisdom, self-control, health, forgiveness—have no finish line. Jean jackets and borrowed bravado are mere detours. We have to keep striving towards a Hero’s homecoming. All the while, accepting that there will always be scarlet robes to try on and new Buddhas to murder.