Asking ourselves “who am I?” rarely moves us beyond the perspective of the familiar, for the simple reason that we see ourselves through the same lens as we see everything else. And as we age, we have had a long time to convince ourselves that we know everything there is to know about that “who”.
Perhaps asking ourselves “where am I?” holds greater promise of shifting us out of the familiar into a realm that will feel more spacious and less defined. In looking with fresh eyes at the “where” in which we find ourselves, an unknown–perhaps unknowable–quality of spaciousness may slip into our consciousness like a breeze blowing in from far-off lands.
And perhaps asking ourselves “when am I?” may help shift us out of a sense that our lives are winding down and allow us to glimpse a timeless quality in which anything might still happen. If we don’t worry too much that our battery-life may be running past its due date, then something new may surprise us, like a late summer flower blooming in the garden.
In the intersection that our “where’s” and “when’s” illuminate, we have always been free to exchange one perspective for another, but we rarely do—perhaps because what we are used to finding is who we think we are.
Recently I have been saying “Yes” to opportunities that have arisen for me to become more involved in the world. My hope is that by challenging perceived limits in my levels of energy and skill that I will penetrate beneath those limits. I am not looking for eternal youth, but since I have a bus pass I figure that I might as well ride to the end of the line.
Meanwhile, just as someone travelling in an unfamiliar neighborhood can become lost, I sometimes find it confusing to be in the midst of activities for which I am unsure I possess the skills. It’s as if life now offers new challenges to go along with old ones. There seems to be a shadow side to the pleasure of feeling useful, engaged, and acquiring new skills: (the fear of) making mistakes, disappointing the expectations of others, and finding that my aging mind—never top-of-the-line—is out of its depth.
I feel grateful to have the time, energy, and opportunity to make forays into unexplored fields beyond my front door. It gives me a sense that I am living in a gap in the flow of ordinary time: within a space that is opening up between the tired comfort of the old and the unfamiliarity of something new. During this in between-time, perhaps I can catch a glimpse of my daily life from a level hovering above it.
New paths, which I expect all of us experience—ready or not–provide a possibility for fresh perspectives to arise within the midst of our daily life. And if we don’t rush to cover over the new with the sense that we must make it become familiar in order to be successful, then perhaps we will find another kind of integration–one which honors the uniqueness of the present as it flowers out of the ground of the universal.
Perhaps by asking “where am I”–as we move into fresh activities, relationships, and places—we can refresh our image of what it means to be a human being.
Perhaps by asking “when am I?”—as we greet new interests, skills, and challenges—we can contact a realm beyond the flow of time into which we stepped many moons ago.