By Toru Watanabe
I’ve just finished reading an autobiography in which the author quotes a letter which he wrote to himself aged 15, to be read when he was 25. In this missive, he told his older self that the person he was at 15 was his true self and that every day that passed after then was one more step in betrayal of himself.
“Well I tell you now that everything I feel now, everything I am now is truer and better than anything I shall ever be. Ever. This is me now, the real me. Every day that I grow away from the me that is writing this now is a betrayal and a defeat.”
This struck me because I felt the sentiment was one which I had to some degree shared at some point. Perhaps 15, that angry age where everyone else is wrong and no-one understands, is the last true vestige before one’s life is subsumed by compromise. Beyond that year, we are forced to take part, to fit in, and to follow the stream slowly to the sea. That was his belief anyway.
I remember the fierce self-pride of that age, the sense of I will not change, the belief that I already understood everything that was important and that those later lessons learned by those older than me were simply delusions they had created to console themselves in the wake of their own sell-outs.
One of the questions that the autobiography posed but did not seek to answer was that of whether or not the 15 year-old’s letter was right. Was he his real self at 15 and is the adult writing the 15 year-old’s story merely a picture of defeat?
I like the thought but I think the question it asks is the wrong question. The pride, passion and fear of self-betrayal that burn so strongly in the letter represent a deep truth and self-honesty that many people lose by training themselves to become an “adult”. The tides of misery, dissatisfaction and creeping mental illness that are slowly flooding our worlds are, I think, largely a result of people’s failure to be true to themselves, their fear-driven conformity.
This 15 year-old’s feelings were true in a way that the beliefs he tried to attach to them were not. Honest passion contains a truth that no manner of factual construction can ever hold. It is not the act of changing that constitutes a defeat and a betrayal of these feelings; only ceasing to permit yourself to feel so strongly and so honestly is such a transgression.
A real self is not an entity that exists in a particular time and place. True selfhood is more like an attitude that one takes to the world. Such an attitude is resistant to change because it is a passionate attitude and not a sum of facts.