A person’s self-concept (or set of beliefs about the self) can be made up of goals, interests, roles, values, their relation to others, and their ideas about their own attributes. Certain beliefs can be core or central to a person’s self-concept, while others can be peripheral. Many times, these beliefs about the self can be contradictory or even context-dependent. As time passes, a person’s self-concept will change as they gain new experiences, interests, interact with new people, and face new challenges.
This fact scares me quite a bit. I know that gaining new skills, interests and values is important, but at the same time, it also makes me feel like I am also losing something within me along the way.
For my first example, I would like to tell you guys about my grandparents and their gardens. All four of my grandparents come from rural Italy where as children they helped their families on their farms. Once they became adults and immigrated to Canada, they continued to till the land and grow their plants here. My grandparents have quite a few gardens, some in their backyards. However, I’m not talking about a quaint backyard garden with a few cucumbers and tomatoes. My grandparents, despite all being over 80 years old, have quite large gardens growing tomatoes (which they use to make their own tomato sauce), potatoes, carrots, lettuces, cabbage, beans, peppers, basil, zucchini, pumpkins, apple trees, prune trees, pear trees, mulberry trees and more! These gardens have always helped our family stay healthy and well-fed, even during the winter. However, a problem has arisen recently. My grandparents are getting quite old, and their bodies can no longer take the strenuous amount of labor it takes to keep up such a large garden, especially in this heat. They still get up at 6 am to go work on their gardens most mornings, however, I can tell that they can’t take much more of it. Despite the pain and strain on their bodies, they refuse to stop. When I asked them why they continue, they just told me that they have to do it. My personal theory is that as they have been growing vegetables and fruits since they were children, this pursuit has become part of who they are. If they lose their garden, then they will be losing an integral part of who they are as a person, which is saddening. And so, they don’t stop. Another one of my theories is that gardening provides them with a sense of purpose. They have a goal to fill their garden with tasty vegetables, which they work extremely hard to fulfill. When you are gardening, you literally see the fruits of your labor. If you work hard, then you’ll be able to feed yourself and your family. It must feel good to have physical proof of your work which you can then eat to gain energy. So, if they stop gardening, what is there to do? What is the point of life? Where should they redirect their time? I don’t think my grandparents want to think about these kinds of questions. I hope that they can find a sense of identity which is independent of gardening so that one day, if they hopefully do stop, they won’t feel like an important piece of themselves is missing.
I have personally struggled with this idea for a while. The fact that the self is not a stable/immovable construct is a hard thought to accept. Who am I? If my values, interests, goals and attributes change over time, is that future self still me?
For my second example, I would like to tell you guys a personal story. Ever since I can remember, I have always been shy. Apparently, I used to be afraid to even get close to my aunt as a baby. In elementary school and high school, I had an extremely difficult time talking to people, socializing in groups, and making friends. Speaking to others has always filled me with anxiety. And so, being “shy” became part of my identity. It was part of who I was. Then, when I got to university, I realized that my shyness had been a hindrance. I was quite lonely and wanted to make new friends, but my inhibitions prevented me from doing so. And so, I decided to change. I joined the anime club, participated in club activities and discussions, spoke to others in and outside class. Slowly, as I faced my fear, my anxiety began to lessen. I became more comfortable speaking and ruminated less after each conversation. However, somewhat similar to my grandparents’ story, a problem arose. As I became less shy, I felt as though I was losing an integral part of my identity. This part of me had been with me since apparent infancy. Who was I if not shy? What parts of me made me who I am? In the end, becoming more confident and outspoken was the right direction to take. This direction brought more joy and quality relationships than shyness ever could. Maybe “who I am” is not just one thing, but many amorphous things that are ever-changing. And maybe that’s okay. A garden grows, so why can’t we?