All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night
We are hardwired to tell stories. Remember the last time you were surprised by a friend or family member’s behavior? How “out of character” you wondered to yourself.
They are one of the many characters in your life, as you are in theirs. Everyone, from your best friend to your postman, plays a role in your life. Some, such as the Deliveroo driver who dropped off your Thai Green Curry last Saturday with a memorable smile, play cameos. Your memory of “chicken man” will fade just as fast as his of “Thai green guy” will.
There are also people in your life without whom, you would feel like you were missing a limb. The family that raised you, the friends that feel closer than blood – who would you be without these people? Would your identity be the same with their total absence in your life?
Our life is a complicated script. There is intrigue, suspense, drama, romance and (hopefully) some comedy. There may be tragedy, hopefully no more than one Act. Some players have roles from start to finish, these actors’ scripts will change from Act to Act. They may even look different as the years roll on.
The cast is a swirling merry-go-round of faces. Do you live in a city? Imagine how many new faces the average New Yorker must see every day. Many of these faces they will never see again, yet even the tiniest interaction – the brushed hand on a metro, the smile as someone hands you a warm bagel – will be forever weaved into the tapestry of your life. You – the protagonist, the face on the DVD cover. The name in six foot letters on the credits at the cinema. The lead role with the star dressing room backstage.
Who are you?
This is the million-dollar question. It’s normally answered with your name, and the conversation will move on. Yet, beneath the surface of your name – who are YOU? Walk tentatively under that colossal looming microscope and sweat in the blinding light. WHO are you?
Are we the collection of school grades, university titles and job descriptions – a walking resume? Or are we a photo montage of memories, from dribbly toddler through angry teen to working parent.
The truth is – we don’t really know. How could we? We are changing every day.
A man can’t cross a river twice, as it won't be the same river, nor the same man. - Proverb
You may have heard that “your atoms are replaced every 7 years”. There is another claim, states with equal authority, that 98% of your atoms are replaced every year. Which one is it, either, neither, both?
Our atoms do love to dance. In a way, our bodies are in perpetual motion. Even while we are leaning back into the comfy sofa, having a session of “Netflix and Chill”, our atoms are bouncing to and from each other. Parts of our body change with the times. The contents of our stomach are one obvious. Our bones grow, our cells are replaced, our skin rejuvenates…yet those tattoos do stick around a long time!
Certain parts of our body are more nomadic. The stomach lining and dermis layers have particular wanderlust. Our skeleton and brain cells are sticklers. We absorb new molecules through food then keep some, and excrete the rest. Our bodies are graveyards of cells – millions die and are replaced. Just being is incredibly energy intensive. To live is to exhaust life. Yet, for the most part, through repair, rejuvenation, regrowth – life goes on. Hence, we grow – ever changing.
Even the bedrock of the body, our dependable, processing unit the good old brain is not immune to change. The neurons once thought to be everlasting are also replaced over time. Memories may be refabricated over the years and we will paint a new past according to present prompts.
Remember however – like the earth underneath our feet, we are mostly water. The same atoms in the water within us could have thundered over the Niagara Falls or swirled in Beethoven’s morning coffee.
The earth spins on its axil, meanders around the sun, and we too, are in eternal flux.
Stagnation is unnatural and dangerous – that is why long stints in a hospital bed cause medical issues of their own. Your muscles turn soft, your bone mass drops. Your body readjusts.
Mind over matter
We like to imagine our sacks of flesh and bone as being somehow apart from the ethereal soul drifting above, at the control panels just behind our eyes.
The question of mind versus matter is becoming more urgent as we advance – down seemingly irreversible tracks – towards a horizon of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and cyborgs. The company Neurolink is already talking about inserting chips in people’s brains. The “brainchild” of the South African entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, this technology has the potential to reverse blindness and cure epilepsy.
Yet the show must go on. New hurdles will be thrown at the protagonist with a sudden job loss (Act III, scene ii), and the unsmiling conversation with the doctor over the uncertain test results (ACT IV, scene i).
The cast will change around you, and sometimes you will simply not know your lines.
We all have those moments of doubt an uncertainty, our foot faltering forward unsure where to step. Sometimes we feel a million miles away from that reckless teenager waling on the wrong side of the bridge rails. Or perhaps the whoosh on the swing that would have brought a squeal of delight from that scabby kneed child now just leaves you nauseous. As we dwell on the past, we have an anxious undercurrent that we are no longer those earlier protagonists. We are the same person, yet we feel somehow…different.
Take comfort in the fact that, in some ways, we really are!
Our star maps are a beautiful memento of the path we carve through the sky. Simply choose one date – and immortalize it in the starry night sky. You may not be exactly the same person who looked up at the twinkling sky that night. Yet - each map is a reminder of how our star-crossed paths crisscross around each other in the Great Show of Life.