Do You Know What You Are?

Do you know what you are?
You are what you is.

-Frank Zappa “You Are What You Is”

zappa zurich

I grew up in the Berkshires, home of the world famous Kripalu Yoga Center. A popular idea at Kripalu, one you can find on a bumper sticker for sale in their gift shop, reads like this: Life is not about discovering yourself, life is about creating yourself.

But do you think that’s true? I like the idea, but on the other hand, I think we do have a fundamental character and the more we live and experience, the more life brings it out. Joseph Campbell, the world famous professor of mythology and religion, said our life evokes our character. I’ve come to agree.

How fascinating if we were all just streaming protoplasm, shapeshifting at will. But I don’t know. I think each of us has a recognizable quality, and life is a process of discovering it, honing and refining it. I’m not suggesting this means we’re locked in to any one outcome, or that one could predict with certainty how we will behave in any given situation. Part of the deliciousness of life on this material plane is choice. We can play many roles in one lifetime. We can change ourselves. But even then we’re rerouting: choosing a new aspect which lay dormant, like a genetic predisposition of the soul.

Beneath it all, I wonder if there is a character, a basic makeup. Let’s imagine you built a company up from nothing, and within five years it was worth three hundred million dollars. Then let’s imagine it all came crashing down; within a month you were in the red. It was over. You were virtually homeless. So let’s imagine you started out again at the beginning, and you built the whole thing up from the ashes. You built it stronger this time, because you had learned from your mistakes. Now many would say that experience was character building, and I absolutely agree that it is, but I would also say experience would be character revealing.

You have a friendship, let’s say, and it seems fine when things are going well, but then there is trouble, and that person vanishes like a ghost. Or something happens at work: the situation is stressful, everyone feels the squeeze, and to protect herself someone you thought you knew betrays you.

Well, what was that about? True colors. Character. You know it when you see it. You know it when someone reveals a character trait of that kind, and although you might try to convince yourself you imagined it, I think one day the betrayal will come, and you’ll wish you had listened to your gut.

We all reveal ourselves, and it is the extraordinary times, good and bad, that bring us out. Some will stick with you during an ordeal, might even surprise you they are so strong and so consistently by your side.

They are revealing themselves, too.

We are all presented in our lives with situations where we witness someone being abused, mistreated, exploited. This includes animals as well as people. Some people do not speak up. They give a million reasons. A common one will have to do with obedience to an authoritarian system. Others join in; they become abusers and exploiters themselves. There is no shortage of people who reveal this in their character. Many of them hold positions in government.

Others speak up, say no, fight back. They encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds, from the reactionary, from the establishment. They reveal what they are, and the thing that they are is beautiful.

Tristan L. Sullivan

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Frank Zappa You Are What You Is

6 Responses to

  1. Michael Celender says:

    I am interested in your take on this. I am a student of Joseph Campbell’s and I am writing a book called Escape the Cubicle: Unleash the Hero Within, based on his universal hero path. I believe we are born into probable roles that we can change and/or recreate if we so desire but it will take a great deal of courage and faith. These are the tools the hero needs more than any other. Too many people aren’t really alive. They’re just sleepwalking through this life playing their part with only a dim awareness that there is something much greater within them that keeps calling to them to listen. Most let the fear drown out that inner voice. I refer to that voice as the inner hero but it may be the character you speak of that many have yet to reveal.

    Michael Celender

  2. Tristan says:

    Yeah, well said. I think it is love, courage, loyalty. Those are the essentials, for any of us to be of help here and do something meaningful. To speak up against the cruelty rather than either tacitly consent, or become a part of it. I totally agree about the nudge from within, which we all have, and which gets stronger i think, the more we listen to it. And i totally agree that it is fear, doubt, the voice of someone from the past who who was critical, abusive- that keeps people from what is sometimes called “spontaneous right action.” And that is totally contextual in my opinion; it comes out of the time and circumstances and what that inner nudge is nudging you towards. There are few absolutes, except to act with compassion and courage. Courage, as you mentioned, seems to be painfully lacking right now. There are the stupid and ignorant of course, but then there are those who know better but lack the courage. During the 2000 election debacle in the US, for example, I recall watching a man from the Bush camp say the following regarding recounts in Florida, and I am paraphrasing: “The system [calls for a tally and to decide the winner]. It does not call for recount after recount until the loser gets the results they want.” I was a young man but that was one of the more pathetic things I had heard a political figure say at the time. His statement implied that one could somehow alter the election through recounts, when in fact, it is simply a tally of votes. As such, if he had even marginal integrity, he would acknowledge that as many or as few counts necessary should be called for by all thinking people in order to determine the will of the people who voted. To count every vote. This man was well dressed, represented a major candidate, was speaking on TV, and yet what he was saying was pitiful and stupid. I remember that I found that time shocking and disillusioning, and my study since of Katherine Harris, ChoicePoint, and the folly of Diebold machines (and the machinations of the Diebold company), has not particularly improved matters.

    But I also find fascinating this notion that it is changing myself from within that changes the without. I’ve seen striking evidence of it! But I can say, when someone betrays you, it is often a lack of courage, weakness… at the heart of it. Michael I would be thrilled to see any parts of your book you care to share. Or, just let me know when it is published so I can pick up a copy. It is a great title, one that speaks to the modern environment: cubicle, to the current self-help culture: unleash the… and to Campbell and the concept of myth and destiny: hero within. Please keep us posted.

  3. Tristan says:

    And yeah, the probable roles we are born into… they don’t have to define us. And that is, as you said, totally a matter of awareness and courage. Of rising above it! If a boy is born and his father is angry, bitter, bigoted… not terribly open minded or imaginative… then it won’t be a big surprise if the boy turns out the same way. What a wonderful thing though, if he turns out different, someone anybody would like to be around. That happens. When it does, it should give us hope.

  4. Michael Celender says:

    I would truly enjoy and appreciate your take on my book and other ideas. Check out my website and to sign up for the free preview of the book on the main page.

    Also, don’t get me started on the whole Bush as President concept because I still cannot accept that he was elected fairly and “legally”…TWICE!

    It is refreshing to hear others who get the concept of what real courage means. I too have felt somewhat betrayed by some so-called friends who will not even read my book because they are frightened of what it may mean for them, if I have escaped the cubicle and life on the treadmill and they are still too afraid to make those kinds of changes. Our deepest fears seem to revolve around what others will think of us if we think, do, or say something different or not mainstream.

    I believe in the message of Joseph Campbell’s work – Follow your bliss!

  5. Tristan says:

    Thank you! Thank you for stopping in again Michael, it’s great to have you. Well… i guess i would have to say that if your growth means losing those friends… well i don’t need to finish the sentence. I like to find friends who achieve so much they make ME insecure. Then i get lifted up along with them. I agree about Joe Campbell. He was such a radiant guy… obviously living his destiny.

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