As I slowly emerge from my grief cocoon I've been asking myself a lot of questions. Move or remodel? Travel or no? Take a class or save my money? Stretch myself or stay in my comfort zone? And what do I want to be when I grow up?
We ask that question of children all the time, but thinking about it now makes me wonder if it isn't the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking How do you want to be? That's a much more difficult question, of course, and maybe a child couldn't answer. But at my age I should know. How do I want to be in the world?
The difference between what and how seems clear to me. The what question requires us to think in concrete, material ways and the answers are necessarily the same: a fireman, a nurse, a soldier, a teacher. They are answers that put us into boxes, that force us to think about jobs or professions, and inevitably, income. They carry us smoothly into the material world. These answers describe what we want to busy ourselves with. But they don't tell us anything about how we want to be.
How moves us from materialism to what matters, whether you call it conscience, soul or simply values. To put it in the starkest of terms, do we want to be good or bad? Brave or fearful? Rule maker or rule breaker? Lover or hater? A help or a hindrance?
These are false dichotomies of course; people aren't just one way, we are many ways, points along many spectrums. Still, it's how we are being that matters, not the what box that materialism encourages.
Sometimes we confuse what and how with who, who are we going to be? But who isn't important in the greater scheme. Who is ego, and while it feels good to have one's ego stroked occasionally, it never gets us where we need to be.
One of the ideas I have tried for years to live by is "change is good." Change is a pivot point. It can be excruciatingly painful or mildly inconvenient, but it's always a chance—or a demand—to rethink our path, to imagine how we might be.
For me right now this is personal. But as a country we're facing a collective pivot point. Instead of ignoring it, or grumbling all day, we need to see it as opportunity. We haven't had such a clear choice since the revolution. How do we want America to be in the world?
As with every pivot point a choice is demanded. Are we up to it?